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15 Super-Manly Facts About Vladimir Putin

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Fifteen years ago today, Russia’s very own Macho Man Vladimir Putin was elected president. Since he stepped into the spotlight, he’s worked hard to cultivate a certain image for himself, engaging in only the manliest of activities—that means no dad dancing—usually while his adoring subjects and/or cameras look on.

It was hard to narrow them down, but in honor of Putin's decade and a half in power, here are 15 of his most impressive, totally-not-staged feats of strength and masculinity.

1. He once captured a 46-pound pike.

During a 2013 fishing trip in Siberia, he reportedly caught a pike weighing 46 pounds, which would make his catch one of the world’s biggest. (Anglers argued that the real weight of the fish was probably half that.)

2. He's a regular Indiana Jones.

Budding archaeologist and scholar Putin allegedly discovered some ancient Greek urns while diving in the Black Sea in 2011. (Sadly, this claim was later rowed back; Putin’s spokesman admitted that the urns were planted for Putin to uncover.)

3. He tracks polar bears …

Putin is eager to help out in the rescuing and preservation of endangered species. That’s probably why he was pictured attaching a satellite tracking device to a polar bear’s neck in April 2010.

4. ... And shoots whales with crossbows—for science!

Putin took aim at a gray whale while hanging out with some marine biologists back in 2010. The hope was that, by temporarily immobilizing the whale, the scientists could collect skin samples for their study of the species. Putin’s aim was just about perfect: “I hit it at the fourth try,” he told reporters.

5. He frees caged wildcats …

A champion of creatures great and small, Putin oversees research programs on a number of different mammals. In May 2010, he symbolically released a west Asian leopard from its cage into an outdoor enclosure in a wildlife sanctuary near Sochi. Some naysayers claimed the animal was injured during the photo op, which Putin's spokesman denied. 

6. ... But also keeps them in line.

In 2008, he intervened when a Siberian tigress tried to attack a camera crew following him at the region's Ussuri wildlife reserve.

7. He soars like an eagle.

Putin once took to the skies in this contraption, in order to accompany Siberian white cranes on their migratory route to Asia. Some cameramen just happened to be there to capture the occasion for posterity.

8. He hangs out in shipwrecks.

In 2013, Putin entered a submersible and sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland, some 200 feet underwater, just to check out a 140-year-old shipwreck.

9. He's really good at hockey.

Really good. He was even able to score a goal against a keeper for Russia's national team! (That guy was definitely playing his hardest.)

10. He's mastered two martial arts.

Who can forget the 82-minute classic, Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin? As part of his KGB/FSB training, Putin also picked up sambo, the Russian martial art. So skilled is Putin in judo that in November 2012 the International Judo Federation granted him a high-ranking 8th Dan, one of the highest grades possible.

11. Accomplished outdoorsmen respect him.

The Kremlin website has a whole page dedicated to Putin’s interests, including this anecdote about a rafting trip in Altai:

Putin also said that once he went whitewater rafting with his daughters down mountain rivers in Altai. “There we were in our raft (maybe I shouldn’t talk about it, but still), and some guys were standing on the bank. They were just standing there, nobody expected us to be there because we flew in quietly, boarded the raft and went down the mountain rivers. They were standing right on the bank, three of them, with these huge beer mugs. When they saw me, they called out: 'Mr President, join us!' I said no, I can’t, I’m in a hurry. 'Well then, here is to your health.' As if they had been waiting for me like I go rafting there every day,” Putin recalled.

12. He once crushed—er, tried to crush—a frying pan with his bare hands.

During a 2012 visit to a Kremlin youth camp, Putin participated in an arm wrestling match, scaled a climbing wall, and attempted to bend a frying pan in half. (No word on if he succeeded.) This is after he called the U.S. a “parasite on the global economy,” by the way. 

13. He’s driven a Formula One race car.

In 2010, Putin took a Renault Formula One race car for a little outing on a St. Petersburg track, reaching speeds of up to 150 miles per hour. During his test drive, he rocked a helmet boasting an image of Russia’s national symbol, a double-headed eagle. Safety first, you guys.

14. His biggest fans are bikers.

The Russian biker gang “Night Wolves” are sometimes called “Putin’s ‘Hell’s Angels,’” because they’re so patriotic. These guys are currently on the U.S. sanctions list because they love their leader so much (oh, and also because they support rebel fighters in Ukraine). 

15. He’s best friends with Steven Seagal.

According to Putin’s spokesman, the statesman and the former action hero are longtime pals. Putin recently proposed that his country make Seagal an honorary consul of Russia in California and Arizona. Obama’s response: “You’ve got to be kidding,” according to one anonymous American official.

A version of this story ran in 2013.

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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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