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The Weird Week in Review

Man Caught Shoplifting During Shop with a Cop

Around 50 police officers in full uniform were at a Walmart store in Waldorf, Maryland Saturday for a charity event in which they helped children select Christmas gifts. Timothy Randall Clark decided it would be a good time to pick up some video games. Store employees saw Clark cutting open video games and stuffing them into his shirt. It was easy for the store to contact police, who were right there. Clark was arrested on charges of attempting to steal 26 games, two controllers, and other game accessories that they found on him, worth a total of $635.

Dog Poop Lottery

The citizens of Taiwan will clean up the streets, given the right incentive. A recent lottery offered $2,000 in gold as the top prize. The catch? To get a ticket, you bring in a bag of dog poop collected from the street. Over 4,000 residents of New Taipei City signed up for the program, and have brought in 14,000 bags of excrement to trade for tickets since the launch of the program in August.

Mythbusters Wrecks Neighborhood

How fast can a cannonball travel? Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage were tackling this question Tuesday for an episode of their TV show Mythbusters when things went completely wrong. The cannon misfired, and the cannonball went up into the air over Dublin, California.

It flew straight though the front door of a home on Cassata Place, and bounced around like a pinball, flying up to the second floor before blasting through a back bedroom wall.

The wayward cannonball then blasted across a busy road and through a second home some 50 yards away, demolishing roof tiles.

The story doesn't stop there, and neither did the cannonball. It finally came to rest inside a minivan at a third home. The driver had left the vehicle just minutes before. Incredibly, no one was injured in the incident. Hyneman and Savage visited the affected homes to apologize.

He Picked the Wrong Victim

Anthony Miranda was arrested in Chicago for an attempted mugging. The 24-year-old approached a man in a car and demanded money at gunpoint last Friday night. After some money was turned over, Miranda made the driver get out of the car. What Miranda didn't know was that his selected victim was a martial arts expert and had won an ultimate fighting championship. At some point, Miranda's attention was distracted and his unnamed victim grabbed for the gun. Two two wrestled, the gun went off, and Miranda shot himself in the ankle. The victim pinned Miranda until police arrived, at which time the perpetrator was sent to the hospital. He was treated for his ankle wound and multiple facial lacerations and two black eyes, which are apparent in his mug shot.

Stranded Man Survives on Beer

Clifton Vial of Nome, Alaska, set out in his Toyota Tacoma to see where a road went, but ended up stuck in a snowdrift on a deserted road that doubles as a snowmobile track. He was 40 miles from town, out of cell phone range, without provisions or much in the way of emergency equipment. Vial wrapped himself in a sleeping bag liner and waited, turning on the car occasionally for warmth. After three days, he was almost out of gasoline. On the second day he didn't show up for work, his boss called emergency services, and the Nome Volunteer Fire Department and state troopers began searching. Meanwhile, Viial's only provisions were a few frozen cans of Coors Light beer. He opened the cans and ate the frozen beer with a knife. When Vial was found, he had lost 16 pounds, but showed no signs of frostbite.

Squirrel Pulls Fire Alarm Prank

When someone pulled a fire alarm at Blackburn Elementary school in Ellenton, Florida, administrators thought a student must have been responsible. Security camera footage was scrutinized to find the perpetrator. The footage showed a squirrel had climbed up the wall, looked around, and pulled the alarm.

"We didn’t have to pay any fines for a false alarm once the fire department realized the little guy was the culprit," according to Todd Henson, director of maintenance and operations for Manatee County Schools.

The squirrel was eventually trapped and let go.

"It's really hard to fine a squirrel, so he got a stern lecture and was released outside," Henson joked.

The video is posted with the story.

No War Crime Charges for Gamers

The 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent was held recently in Geneva, and among the many discussion topics were the many gamers worldwide who played war games, and whether this contributed to a mindset in which war crimes could be committed. Remarks about gamers from those attending the conference led to fears among gamers that they would be tried for virtual war crimes. The International Committee of the Red Cross in Switzerland released a statement Thursday reassuring gamers that violation of international war crime laws only apply to real-life situations.

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