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10 Things You Might Not Know About the Indy 500

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1. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway spans 253 acres and includes a golf course. The track publicity department points out that Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the Roman Colosseum and Vatican City can all fit inside. It's a good thing they never did that. The pre-1981 infield in Turn 1, famously known as The Snakepit, could make Woodstock look like church. The Pope would not have approved, or at least would've demanded shades on his windows.

2. Ray Harroun won the inaugural 500-mile race in 1911. It took him 6 hours, 42 minutes. His car, the Marmon Wasp, had what is believed to be the first rear-view mirror. He averaged 75 miles an hour. Yes. I know. Drivers today hit 80 on the interstate while using the rear-view mirror to apply makeup. But this was a hundred years ago, remember.

3. The tradition of drinking milk after the race began in 1936 with winner Louis Meyer. He drank buttermilk because his mother advised him it was a good drink for a hot day. In 1993, Emerson Fittipaldi went rogue and drank orange juice to promote citrus groves owned by his family. He then took a sip of milk, but it didn't stop fans in Wisconsin (America's Dairyland) from booing him the following week.

4. Race fans will consume 24,000 pounds of track fries Sunday. That's basically a couple adult elephants but not nearly as chewy. Peanuts, by the way, had been considered bad luck at Indy since the 1940s, though in 2009 the concession stands began selling them.

5. In 2001 Aerosmith's Steven Tyler angered fans, including some military veterans. He sang "The Star Spangled Banner" and changed the ending from "home of the brave" to "home of the Indianapolis 500." So, yes, he also ticked off people who like rhymes.

6. Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti were involved in a controversial finish in 1981. It wasn't until five months later that Unser was declared the winner. No word on whether he drank curdled milk.

7. A split between CART and Speedway owner Tony George's Indy Racing League kept some of the big names from racing at Indy in the mid-1990s. The first post-split winner, Buddy Lazier in 1996, was nevertheless a good story. He'd broken his back in a race in Phoenix a few months earlier. The accident took an unusual toll on his family. "While I was laid up," Lazier said, "my little dog -- a Lab -- ran into my mother and blew out her knee." That same year there was a driver entered named Slick Racin Gardner. Seriously.

8. In 2001 Tony Stewart raced at Indy, finishing sixth. Then he flew to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600 and finished third. He's the only driver to finish all 1,100 miles in the Indy-Charlotte double. Think of that the next time you start dozing 20 minutes into the drive to your mother-in-law's house.

9. Emerson Fittipaldi made his debut at Indy in 1984 driving a pink car and wearing a pink race suit. Proving that drivers will do absolutely anything for their owners and sponsors.

10. The Andrettis have bad luck. Mario Andretti won in 1969 and never again. Andrettis have lost at Indy in every excruciating way imaginable. In 1992, Mario and Jeff Andretti left the race with broken bones. John Andretti sabotaged himself by running into a pile of tires during a pit stop. And Michael Andretti was way ahead on Lap 189 of the 200-lap race before his fuel pump quit on him.

"So cruel," he said that day. "It can't get much worse than this."

I always thought that if you held a race at Indy where only Andrettis were allowed to drive, the smart money would be on the pace car or the ambulance.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com This article originally appeared in 2011.

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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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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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