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The Weird Week in Review

Email from Beyond the Grave

Jack Froese of Dunmore, Pennsylvania, died suddenly last year at age 32. Six months later, his friends and family began to receive mysterious email messages from Froese's account. Childhood friend Tim Hart got a message warning him to clean his attic, a subject Froese had teased him about before his death. Cousin Jimmy McGraw got an email from Froese referring to an ankle injury McGraw sustained after Froese's death. No one knows who the messages came from, but Froese's mother told the recipients to accept it as a gift, even if it is someone playing a prank.

Exploding Milk Causes Havoc on Highway

A truck transporting milk and cream on the A75 in Galloway, Scotland, caused chaos Tuesday morning when the cargo began to explode. Other drivers saw that the truck was on fire! It took some time for motorists to alert the driver, Phil Sykes, because he couldn't see the fire in his mirrors. Firefighters responded, and had the flames out in abut two hours. They were hampered in their efforts by exploding cream containers and milk cartons. A firefighter said there was milk everywhere.

Mr Sykes said: “I phoned my boss to let him know but he said it was no use crying over spilled milk.The main thing was that no-one was injured.

World Record Guinea Pig Jump

A guinea pig in Rosyth, Fife, Scotland, named Truffles took a leap into the record books in front of Guinness-appointed witnesses, his 13-year-old owner Chloe Macari, and her scout troop. Truffles jumped for neither fame nor fortune, but for his favorite snack, cucumber. The jump was measured at 30 centimeters, which was 10 centimeters more than the previous record set in 2009. When Macari learned of the 2009 record, she knew her guinea pig could jump further, and petitioned Guinness officials for a chance to prove it. Truffles now goes into the record book, and Macari earned credit toward a community events scout badge. The jump was captured on video.

The Battle of the Barber Poles

Growing tensions have a couple of states considering legislation to spell out who can display the iconic spiral-striped barber pole. Licensed barbers say their profession has the exclusive right to the symbol, while beauticians, cosmetologists, and salon owners say that since they cut men's hair, they should be able to use a barber pole, too. The professions that serve men and women have been at odds with each other for centuries. At least ten states have already reserved the pole for barbers only by law, and Minnesota and Michigan have such bills in the legislative process.

Sex-deprived Fruit Flies Turn to Alcohol

Studies in human addictive behavior have found that alcoholism is only partially genetic, so scientists turned to fruit flies to see if social triggers could cause excessive drinking. It turns out that fruit flies are not so different from humans after all. They separated groups of flies and arranged for one group to be rejected as mating partners. That group tended to seek out alcohol-laced fly food more than the group that mated successfully. The drunk flies bumped into walls and each other, fell down, and eventually passed out. The researchers found a correlation in the level of a particular neuropeptide molecule that determined which group would prefer the alcohol-laced food.

Bigamy Exposed via Facebook

You know that feature of Facebook in which it suggests new friends for you among your friend's other friends? In the case of a Seattle man, the social network suggested that his first wife "friend" his second wife. See, he is still married to the first wife.

According to charging documents filed Thursday, Alan L. O'Neill married a woman in 2001, moved out in 2009, changed his name and remarried without divorcing her. The first wife first noticed O'Neill had moved on to another woman when Facebook suggested the friendship connection to wife No. 2 under the "People You May Know" feature.

"Wife No. 1 went to wife No. 2's page and saw a picture of her and her husband with a wedding cake," Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist told The Associated Press.

Wife No. 1 then called the defendant's mother.

She also called authorities, and O'Neill was arrested for bigamy. He was freed until his court appearance, as he is not considered a threat.

BASE Jumpers Skip Out on Bar Bill

Four men in business suits carrying a suitcase enjoyed drinks at the Vue de Monde restaurant atop the Rialto Towers in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday evening. They visited the restroom and then threw themselves off the balcony! The four parachuted down the 243-meter skyscraper to a waiting car below. The parachutes were hidden under their suit jackets, and the helmets were in the suitcase. Police are on the lookout for the BASE jumpers, not only because jumping from the towers is illegal, but also because they didn't pay their bar tab.

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!

Original image
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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