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11 Landmarks “Built” by Paul Bunyan

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Tall tales don't get much taller than America's most beloved lumberjack, Paul Bunyan. His larger-than-life adventures often included his similarly-gigantic wife and children along with Babe the Big Blue Ox. According to folklore, this clan in their travels constructed some of the continent's most breathtaking rivers, mountains, and canyons. Here are 11 of the most famous.

1. The Mississippi River

One day, as Paul was leading Babe down a treacherous road with a heavy tank of water in tow, the container sprung a leak, which trickled southward and eventually formed the mighty Mississippi.

2. The Grand Canyon

Babe owes his distinctive hue to a bizarre meteorological event called “The Winter of Blue Snow,” in which (as the name implies) loggers and their countrymen endured an entire season of bright blue snowflakes, which changed his color permanently. Later in the year, while braving through a storm in search of firewood, Paul absent-mindedly dragged his heavy axe behind him: carving one of the world's Seven Natural Wonders in the process. 

3. The Finger Lakes

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Currently among the East Coast's biggest vacation destinations, stories differ on how the Bunyans might've had a hand in their creation. Among the most popular tales holds that one day while hiking through upstate New York, Paul tripped and threw his hand down to break his fall, thus inadvertently carving the aptly-named Finger Lakes.

4. The Great Lakes

Unable to find a suitable watering hole for his favorite bovine, Paul carved five of his own in the upper midwest.

5. The Bay of Fundy

That Paul was a big baby should come as no surprise: Some storytellers maintain that it took nearly half a dozen storks to carry the infant to his bewildered parents in northeastern Maine. It was said that the rocking of his cradle was so violent that it sent surging tidal waves through the Bay of Fundy, which were so powerful that they're still going strong today.

6. The Black Hills

Babe wasn't Paul's only beast of burden: Benny the little blue ox—an exuberant youngster who, in the words of folklorist William B. Laughead, “weighed only two tons when Paul got him”—often accompanied the pair on their exploits. His insatiable appetite for pancakes unfortunately led to an early demise and the ground disturbed by his burial became a range of picturesque mountains...one of which went on to have the faces of four beloved presidents carved into its side.

7. The 10,000 Lakes

While trekking through Minnesota one winter, Paul and Babe left a myriad of gigantic footprints, known throughout the state as the “Ten Thousand Lakes” to its modern denizens.

8. The Missouri River

In some stories, when Babe passed away after growing to a ripe old age, Paul's tears were so large and so numerous that they formed the Missouri River.

9. Niagara Falls

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In The Bunyans, children's book author Audrey Wood claims that what are arguably the world's best-known waterfalls were formed when Paul's feisty toddlers got dirty and had to be bathed in the Niagara River, though it's unknown if this story was first told by modern yarn-spinners or their nineteenth-century counterparts.

10. Mount Lassen

Paul's equally-titanic cousin, known simply as “Big Joe,” was a talented cook who one day decided to transform a nearby mountain into a stove large enough to feed his kinsman with. The result was California's Mount Lassen, an active volcano which erupted in 1914.

11. Mount Hood

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After camping in northern Oregon, Paul decided to extinguish his fire by smothering it with a pile of rocks, which have since been dubbed “Mount Hood."

For more Bunyan stories, check this out!

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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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