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The 2012 Olympic Torch Relay

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Less than a month to go before the opening of the London Olympics, and we are halfway through the 70-day Olympic Torch Relay that takes the Olympic Flame through all four countries of the United Kingdom. The route covers 8,000 miles and involves 8,000 relay runners.

Photograph of the Olympic torch passing through Dunfermline, Scotland, by Flickr user Grant Adamson.

The Olympic flame was part of the ancient games in Greece. The torch relay commemorates how Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and presented it to humans. The ancient Greeks also kept the flame burning for the duration of the games. The torch relay was introduced to the modern (summer) games in 1936, and was added to the winter games in 1952.

Olympic Flame 2012 (Athens)

Photograph of the origin ceremony by Flickr user Kokotron.

This year's flame was lit on May 10, ignited by the sun's rays hitting a parabolic mirror at the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, near the site of the ancient games.

Airbus photograph by Marc Van Loo via Wikipedia.

The torch was relayed around Greece for a week in honor of the ancient Olympics before being flown to Britain on May 18 on a chartered Airbus A319 nicknamed The Firefly. The Civil Aviation Authority gave a special waiver for carrying an open flame on an aircraft.

Olympic Torch Event, Halifax

Torch photographer by Flickr user Adam Kerfoot-Roberts.

The 2012 Olympic torch was designed by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. The outer surface contains 8,000 circles, to signify the 8,000 mile route through the UK and the 8,000 runners who are relaying it. It's not just one torch passed from runner to runner. Around 15,000 torches are manufactured, and each torchbearer has the opportunity to purchase their torch after the run.

2012 Olympic Torch Relay - Cardiff

Photograph by Flickr user Sum_of_Marc.

The torch relay in Britain began May 18 at Land's End in Cornwall. Soccer icon David Beckham had the honor of lighting the first torch from the flame that was carried on the plane. In the picture above, the torch is traveling through Cardiff, Wales on May 25.

Olympic relay Pontypridd

The torch relay passed through Pontypridd, Wales on May 25, and was photographed by Flickr user Kristi Herbert. It continued north and looped through Northern Ireland early in June.

Jason Maguire

And through Handbridge, Chester, England, on May 28. Photograph by Flickr user Sum_of_Marc.

Olympic Torch Relay Flames

Day's end ceremony photograph by Flickr user Sum_of_Marc.

London's Torch Security Team accompanies the flame throughout the route. The 70 or so members have trained for 18 months to keep the flame safe.

Olympic Torch Event, Halifax

Lantern photograph by Flickr user Adam Kerfoot-Roberts.

At the end of each day's run, the Torch Security Team is responsible for securing the flame in a miner's lantern for the night.

Olympic Torch

Derek Montgomery carries the torch through Clydebank, Scotland on June 9. Photograph by Flickr user Andy Magee.

Olympic Torch Event, Halifax

A young girl in Halifax, England, waits for her turn to relay the flame on June 24. Photograph by Flickr user Adam Kerfoot-Roberts.

Ripon:Olympic Torch Bearer

The torch was carried through Ripon, England on June 19. Photograph by Flickr user EMjBU.

The flame will end its journey on July 27 at the opening ceremonies in Stratford. We will not know until that night who the final torchbearers will be, and who will have the honor of lighting the cauldron that will burn throughout the 2012 games.

Olympic Torch Relay

Jon-Allan Butterworth carries the torch in Prestwich, Manchester, England on June 23. Butterworth is a cyclist who will race in the 2012 Paralympics. Photograph by Flickr user Matthew Riley.

You can follow the daily route of the torch at the flame's website.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]