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Out of the Ordinary Thanksgivings

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For many Americans, Thanksgiving is a very consistent holiday. Every year is the same: the same feast with the same dishes, the same family members sitting at the same places around the table, and everyone knows what's going to happen. It's tradition! And most of the time, we love it that way -or else we would change it. But what if it was different? While you're enjoying the traditional family holiday, read about some Thanksgivings that fall outside the norm in one way or another.

Dinner Disaster

I've hosted Thanksgiving for years, and can't say I've had any real disasters. Several times I remembered the rolls in the oven after everyone has eaten, but that's no disaster. A disaster is when a dog carries your turkey off, or when everything else is done and you find the turkey needs another two hours to cook. Every year there are posts that share stories of Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong, with more stories always posted in the comments. The Butterball Hotline collected the most classic stories of clueless cooks and their turkeys.

The Deep-fried Turkey Disaster

Image by Flickr user starlen.

Starlen, however, had a turkey disaster in 2005 that was so complete he had to write about it. He and his friend Tomas lived through the list of things that can go wrong with the manly deep-fried turkey plan, starting with buying the fryer the day before Thanksgiving. The store was sold out, but the staff was glad to piece together two returned fryers for them, crossing fingers that it would work.

Sad, worthless thermometer.

Image by Flickr user starlen.

That one fact gives us three clues about what eventually led to a charred, black turkey. For one, it was the first time either of these men tried to deep-fry a turkey. Second, they waited until the last minute to make sure they had all the tools and supplies they needed. And three, the fryer itself had been returned to the store because it was defective, or rather, two fryers were returned because they were defective. Can you guess which part was still defective? You can read the entire story to find out.

Immediately before spitting turkey out.

Image by Flickr user starlen.

Of course, it could have been much worse. Starlen and Tomas were outside, away from any flammable structures, as all turkey-fryers should be. The deep-fried turkey has elevated Thanksgiving to the level of dangerous holidays like the Fourth of July and News Year's Eve. Here's a set of videos that show how a Thanksgiving turkey can turn into a ball of flame bent on destruction.

The Stranger at the Table

Everyone is welcome at my table, so I am used to various cousins and in-laws showing up for Thanksgiving, expected or not. There's always enough food. But I usually know who they are. One year, a carload came with a fellow I'd never met. Someone may have introduced him by name, but no one ever explained who he was. It was only weeks later that I found out he was my late husband's cousin's boyfriend. I would have never guessed, as the man was at least 30 years older than the cousin (they later married). But that story pales in comparison with the Tran family, who welcomed a stranger from the other side of the globe.

Thanksgiving with the Tran Family

Australian journalist James West has the same common name as a man of the Tran family of Florida, and his email address was inadvertently entered into someone's list. Years ago, he began to receive groups emails about their Thanksgiving plans. He mostly ignored them. After all, he didn't know these people, and Thanksgiving is an American holiday he didn't celebrate. But last year West started reading them and got to know them a bit. He retrieved old messages from previous years that had more information. The more he learned, the more intrigued he became. After a while, he could even piece together who was related to who. He wanted to go and have Thanksgiving with the Trans, but was unsure about how to go about doing it (not wanting to appear creepy, you know). So he took the dilemma to YouTube (which is still somewhat creepy). The videos he made about the quest were popular in Australia, but the Tran family did not know about them. Yet.

West finally responded to a message, asking what he could bring. They suggested he bring corn. That weighed heavy on his mind, because they still thought he was the intended relative. So he came clean and explained who he really was -a stranger in Sydney. Martha Tran DeForest replied, "You are so invited!" At the last possible minute, West boarded a plane in Sydney and flew 20 hours to Florida for the holiday.

The Tran family welcomed West at the Miami airport and took him to Jupiter to meet the "Tran Clan," and then to Port St. Lucie for the feast. The two James Wests finally got to meet.

The event made both local and global news. West and the Americans became friends and the Trans held an additional party in West's honor before he had to return to Sydney. You can see the entire series of videos at West's YouTube channel.

This year, West is in America once again, this time covering the Occupy Wall Street protests. You can follow his updates at Twitter.

Serving Others

Shelter

Image by Flickr user Jan Tik.

Sure, It's a family holiday, but everyone should spent at least one Thanksgiving out of their lifetime with those who don't have family or someplace to enjoy a home-cooked feast.

David and Marie Linton are not only helping to serve Thanksgiving dinner, but are manning the front desk at the homeless shelter in shifts with other volunteers. They serve meals at a soup kitchen on other days, but say that Thanksgiving is special.

“It was a way to be of service. It’s a real time to be grateful for all the blessings we do have, and this was a good way to be thankful. It made the day more special, because we could not only give thanks in our prayers and our thoughts, but we could also in our actions.”

Shelley Gillespie makes volunteering a way of life, and introduced her son to the joys of serving those less fortunate when he was quite young.
Becky Genese first volunteered at a soup kitchen during college, since she couldn't afford to go home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Volunteering wasn't her idea, but she went along with a friend.

“I don’t recall being very enthusiastic about it,” Genese said. “But when in Rome…”

To her surprise, she said she had a great time and felt a “real sense of joy” volunteering that day. This ultimately led to ongoing volunteer work with homeless and sheltered populations throughout New York. Later, she began volunteering at the soup kitchen offered through her lower Manhattan church and continues to give of her time year-round, even though she has since moved to New Jersey.

Genese is now married with children, and after she cooks for her own family ahead of time, she takes more food to a Manhattan soup kitchen and serves Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless.

One thing that the stories of volunteerism have in common is that helping out becomes a habit, because it is more rewarding than you'd expect. And it doesn't have to be Thanksgiving to be a joyful event. Many soup kitchens, food banks, and shelters need volunteers for the Christmas season and all year round. It sure helps to put one's problems into perspective.

Away From Home

Maybe you have to work on Thanksgiving, or maybe you're away at school, or you live away from your extended family. Memories of Thanksgivings past can make you a lot more homesick than other days. But no one is farther away from home than soldiers in a war zone.

Thanksgiving on Combat Outpost Cherkatah, Khowst province, Afghanistan

Thanksgiving on Combat Outpost Cherkatah, Khowst province, Afghanistan. Image by Flickr user The U.S. Army.

Military meals in Afghanistan can mean MREs in the field, mass quantities at established bases, and everything in between, depending on the day and the situation. At Thanksgiving, those in charge try their best to bring in traditional holiday foods for everyone. About a quarter of the 160,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan will have Thanksgiving dinners airlifted to their remote locations -the only way to get supplies in if you're in the mountains.

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Thanksgiving at the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. Image by Flickr user isafmedia.

For troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Defense Logistics Agency is providing Thanksgiving dinner.

More than 270 dining facilities have received their deliveries and are postured to serve the special holiday fare later this month due largely to DLA's early planning, which began in May. Deliveries included: 168,000 lbs. of turkey; 37,800 lbs. of stuffing; 93,876 lbs. of beef; 43,560 lbs. of sweet potatoes; 24,000 lbs. of shrimp; 34,560 pies and 25,800 lbs. of cranberry sauce along with many other holiday treats.

1st Lt. Lorena Vega was the logistics officer at Kapisa PRT (Province Reconstruction Team) in Afghanistan in 2010. She spent weeks coordinating a Thanksgiving feast in which all 100 troops and support personnel could sit down at the same time -which doesn't happen for everyday meals. Finding a place that big, and enough tables and chairs, was a real job. Vega also managed to get tablecloths and candles to make the meal special, but having a place for everyone to be together at once was what the soldiers appreciated most.

The Important Part

All these different Thanksgiving scenarios have one thing in common. They highlight the fact that even though we describe our Thanksgiving holiday in terms of the food, that doesn't matter nearly as much as the people you spend the day with. Whether your Thanksgiving is exactly the same as you expect every year, or if this is the year you plan something different, or even if things take an unexpected turn from what you planned, remember that family, friends, colleagues, or even total strangers make it what it is.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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