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CURIOSITY HAS LANDED

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After a tense and slightly inebriated evening of watching NASA TV, I am pleased to report: NASA's Curiosity rover has landed.

In Portland, Oregon, my fiancée and I followed along on NASA TV, streaming the coverage on a phone beaming video to our TV, watching as it dropped out periodically and displayed lovely green macroblocking, and getting tense while waiting through Curiosity's seven minutes of terror. We ate peanuts at the appropriate time to wish Curiosity good luck. And it worked.

This post will be updated as our celebration continues.

Update, 10:37pm PDT:

Mission Control at JPL is a circus. On-air commentator is choking up a bit. The first 256px thumbnail has arrived, showing a wheel of the rover casting a shadow on Mars. "I can't believe this! This is unbelievable!"

Update, 10:42pm PDT: JPL control are now all standing, no longer attending their stations. One team member cries "Holy s**t!" and another, "We've done it again!" Also: "If anybody in the MSA is listening, you should check out our current position on our flythrough. ... You should watch this flight." I doubt anyone at JPL is paying attention to their headsets anymore.

Update, 10:46pm PDT: JPL control quotes as heard through the boisterous chatter: "Eight years of attention!" and "We're on Mars again!" Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator: "To hear the calls come, saying everything was all right -- it was incredible. ... Everyone in the morning should be sticking their chests out, saying 'That's my rover!'"

Update, 10:50pm PDT: A historically significant tweet:

A few thumbnails from Curiosity:

Curiosity thumbnailCuriosity, via Twitter, posts a pics-or-it-didn't-happen instance: "No photo or it didn't happen? Well lookee here, I'm casting a shadow on the ground in Mars' Gale crater."

First Curiosity thumbnail10:14:29pm PDT is the official touchdown time. JPL specialist in California jokingly apologizes for not converting the time to UTC. Shown at left: the first, rather muddy Curiosity thumbnail, showing the rover's wheel on Mars.

Update, 10:57pm PDT: NASA TV host mentions that thumbnails are available from nasa.gov, despite crushing traffic. They are not. Twitter's image service is holding up better. Meanwhile: "We're looking for going again to Mars...and to Europa." -Dr. Charles Elachi. Apparently no respect for 2010's warning "ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS--EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE." Eh, Roy Scheider will (did?) sort that out.

Update, 11:16pm PDT: Still waiting for the JPL press conference, and the first awesome Twitter gag has arisen: The Yip Yips are real.)

Update, 11:25pm PDT: The JPL press conference has begun. Lots of hootin' and hollerin' in the room. First comment from a scientist: "About an hour ago I looked outside, and I looked to the west [at Mars], and I said 'You're going to have a visitor.'" Charlie Bolden then proceeds to thank our Australian friends in the Deep Space Network for receiving signals and relaying them to the States. He proceeds to note that we now have four successful US landings on Mars, but refuses to name the other "four countries" that are on Mars along with the US. "Our leadership is gonna make the world better," Bolden says. He says: "Today's landing marks a significant step towards achieving that goal [of landing humans] on Mars." If you're not watching this live, tune in now.

Update, 11:30pm PDT: The press conference continues with various references to American commitment to astronauts on Mars. Your humble blogger wonders whether he'll be able to provide live coverage of humans on Mars within the next few administrations. Outlook: sadly doubtful.

Update, 11:33pm PDT: The press conference has become a straight-up party. No one is speaking from the stage, everyone is high-fiving. Elachi periodically attempts to regain control.

Update, 11:37pm PDT: After about five minutes trying to get the room to shut up, Elachi says: "I just was talking to my daughter, and she was crying about how exciting this was -- how inspirational." Also: "What a bargain! This cost you -- this movie cost you less than seven bucks per American, and look at what excitement we've provided you." (Thunderous applause. Blogger note: I've seen other estimates stating that the cost is more like four bucks per person.)

Update, 11:57pm PDT: Can't resist updating for this last bit: Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing asks about the image format and compression coming back from the rover, and Steltzner has no idea on the details.

Thus ends your one-man team coverage for tonight. I'm sure by Monday morning when (most of you) read this, we'll have better images and more analysis of the landing. Good night, people of Earth and rovers of Mars!

Update, the next day, 8:10am PDT: The Atlantic puts Flight Director Ferdowsi's mohawk in context. It's a terrific read, and the man is on Twitter.

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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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