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How a Gang of Pickpockets Shut Down the Louvre

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By Harold Maass

Employees at the Louvre agreed to return to work on Thursday after a one-day walkout, but only when their bosses said they'd tighten security to crack down on increasingly aggressive gangs of pickpockets at the famous Paris art museum. The strike left crowds of disappointed tourists waiting for hours outside the Louvre, home to such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. About 200 of the 450 staff members it takes to run the museum participated in the walkout, and 100 of them picketed in front of the Ministry of Culture demanding that the government tackle the problem. So what's all the ruckus about?

Why are the gangs so threatening?

Museum workers say the pickpockets cruise the Louvre in groups of up to 30. They're usually minors, so they can get into the Louvre any time, as admission is free for visitors under 18. English-speaking tourists complain that the thieves, many of whom are immigrants from Eastern Europe, target them, asking, "Do you speak English?" or giving them an English postcard to sign or read. While the person is distracted, more of the thieves show up, grabbing the victim's wallet or other valuables and then quickly walking away.

And the danger is increasing.

Museum employees have increased their pleas for help as the pickpockets grow more aggressive. Workers say the kids spit at them, insult them, threaten them, and even attack them when spotted. "The children are tough and very well organized," one member of the staff tells Britain's Telegraph. "We can only do so much, but arrests are usually impossible because of their young age. If they are kicked out, they return the next day. They are very aggressive towards staff, putting people in danger of attack."

This isn't exactly a new problem, though.

"There are always pickpockets at the Louvre and other tourist hot spots in central Paris, but for a year and a half they have been more and more violent... and their way of working is well organized," Sophie Aguirre, a member of the museum workers' union, tells Britain's Guardian. The union last year lodged a formal complaint with the state prosecutor saying that the thieves are targeting both visitors and staff members in the vast galleries.

How are authorities addressing the problem?

After the employees filed their complaint to prosecutors last year, the museum stepped up cooperation with police and began barring anyone already identified as a pickpocket from entering the museum. Now authorities have agreed to increase police presence at and around the Louvre. The stakes are high for the city. The Louvre is the world's most heavily visited museum, with nearly 10 million visitors each year. At this time of year, 30,000 people arrive each day, and their impressions can have a direct impact on the city's image among tourists, an important source of income for the French capital. And the widely publicized Louvre walkout comes as the city is still recovering from another recent blow to its reputation, when thieves attacked a tour guide and stole passports and a large amount of cash from a group of 23 Chinese tourists who had just arrived in the country.

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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]