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The Weird Week in Review

The Bike-eating Tree

A bicycle lost over 50 years ago has been found -five feet off the ground, swallowed by a tree. Ninety-nine-year-old Helen Puz told the story of how she received a bicycle for her 8-year-old son in 1954. The boy was not particularly happy about riding a girl's bike, and one day told his mother the bike was lost. Forty years later, Puz read a a local newspaper account of a tree in the same woods her son used to roam that had grown up around a bicycle. Photographs of the bike had already spread around the world. The mystery of where her son had left his bike all those years ago was solved. There's not much chance of recovering the bicycle; it's quite rusted, but the front wheel still turns!

Oompa-Loompas Sought in Assault Case

Police in Norwich, Norfolk, England, are looking for two Oompa-Loompas in connection with an assault on a 28-year-old man, who was left with cuts, bruises, and two black eyes. The man was attacked as he was leaving a kebab shop.

"Police are seeking a group of four people, two of whom were dressed as Oompa-Loompas, who attacked a male on a night out," a spokesman for Norfolk police said.

"Two of the males were dressed as Oompa-Loompas from [the Roald Dahl book] Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with painted orange faces and dyed green hair and were wearing hooped tops."

The spokesman added: "One of the males in the group then pushed the victim to the floor before he got up. He was then hit on the head, fell to the floor and hit again."

Anyone with information is urged to call the Norfolk police.

Three Tries, No Jewelry

Two men attempted to break into a jewelry store in Beaudesert, Australia, on New Year's Eve by breaking through the back wall of the building. However, when they went through the wall, they found themselves in a KFC outlet -which was still open! The two took the opportunity to hold up the restaurant, and made off with $2,600. Police said the KFC robbery was the pair's third unsuccessful attempt to burglarize the jewelry store that day! That morning, they had failed to break the store's glass windows. Then they tried breaking in through the back door, but entered a thrift store instead -which netted them only $50 from a charity box. The jewelry store remained untouched. Peter Welsh and Dwayne Doolan were arrested when police raided Welsh's home.

Suing for Her Name

A 15-year-old girl in Iceland is suing the government for the right to use her own name. Blaer Bjarkardottir was named and baptized before her family was informed that the name Blaer was not on Iceland's approved list of 1,853 female names. Blaer is referred to as "Stulka," which means simply "girl" on all official documents. The rules are especially frustrating, as Blaer is an Icelandic name, but only approved for males. Bjarkardottir points out that the name was used for a female character in a novel by a Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author. Meanwhile, Bjarkardottir must explain the circumstances of not having an official name when dealing with any bank or government service.

Secret Fishing Spots Sold for Revenge

Angela Potter of Waikato, New Zealand was not happy when her ex-boyfriend moved to Australia with her suitcase, which she said has sentimental value. But he didn't take everything with him.

Miss Potter was clearing out her garage when she found the GPS markings for fishing spots in the Bay of Plenty and many other areas of the North Island, so she auctioned them off on Trade Me last January and scored herself a whopping $3000.

The auction received 89,688 views, making it the 10th most viewed Trade Me auction of 2012, a surprise to Miss Potter.

The ex-boyfriend was not happy about his secret fishing locations being sold to the highest bidder. Potter said she didn't do it to be vindictive, but rather for a laugh.

A Restraining Order Against Helicopter Parents

Aubrey Ireland is a 21-year-old student at the University of Cincinnati. A judge granted her a restraining order against her parents, who must now stay 500 feet away from their daughter until September. Ireland's complaints that her parents were controlling her life at first sound similar to many college students, but her parents installed monitoring software on her computer, required her to leave a Skype connection on all night so her mother could watch her sleep, and made unannounced 600-mile visits to Ireland's department head. They also threatened to force Ireland into mental health treatment. Since the restraining order was granted, Ireland's parents have requested a refund of $66,000 in educational costs. Meanwhile, Aubrey Ireland was awarded a full scholarship for her senior year.

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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