Original image
Quirk Books

10 Sweet Spooks from "100 Ghosts"— Plus, a Contest!

Original image
Quirk Books

Comedian Doogie Horner was once a contestant on America's Got Talent, and he created the cover art for Quirk Books titles, including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Now, he's got a book of his own out, 100 Ghosts: A Gallery of Harmless Haunts. We asked Horner to give us the lowdown on his favorite spooks from the book, and we've got five copies of 100 Ghosts to give away—more details below!


"This friendly specter was the inspiration for the book, the tiny seed from which a great spooky oak grew. I drew him when I was designing a chart about the afterlife in various religions, and those round black eyes surprised me; they seemed lonely. It made me want to spend more time with him. Maybe make him a sandwich."


"Adding a mustache to the ghost was a small change with profound implications, because it gave him a backstory. This isn’t just a ghost with a mustache, it’s a dead cop who’s still trying to do his job in the afterlife, but doesn’t realize all the criminal ghosts can tell he’s a cop because he’s the only one with a mustache."


"I didn’t come from a rich family, so we couldn’t afford fancy monsters. If we wanted to see a werewolf we couldn’t fly to Romania and hire a guide, we had to make one ourselves by getting my grandfather drunk, putting him in a fur coat, and dropping him off in the woods without a flashlight. Similarly we couldn’t dream of affording a spectral guide to call forth spirits in the parlor, so we had to make our own ghosts out of old Kleenex, buttons, and yarn."


"One Halloween my friend dressed as a classic ghost by draping a bed sheet over his head and cutting two holes for his eyes. We went to a party and the costume got uncomfortable so he took it off. The rest of the night when people asked him, 'What are you dressed up as?' he said, 'I’m a ghost, my sheet is draped over that chair.'"


"'You wanna see the most beautiful ghost I’ve ever drawn?' When I first saw that scene in American Beauty, it was 1999 and I was a teenager. Ricky Fitts’s monologue blew me away. He videotaped a bag! He saw the beauty in the world we all took for granted. But watching that scene years later it seems more like Ricky was maybe just trying to score with that girl. Now I relate more to Kevin Spacey flipping burgers. Does this empty shopping bag actually hold a second, smaller ghost, a more innocent version of myself? Or maybe a receipt for bologna?"


"The most important thing I learned while making this book is that ghosts aren’t so different from us. They’re people too—dead people who have unfinished business and are doomed to wander the earth, possibly for eternity. And just like normal people, sometimes they get nervous. You think your job is hard? Try getting the walls to bleed or floating a cast iron candelabra down a hallway! My point is: sometimes ghosts get nervous."


"Every time my wife and I go outdoors I inevitably ignore the beautiful scenery and walk around with my nose buried in a book or sketchbook. I’m allergic to grass and hope that if I don’t make eye contact it won’t attack me. During one trip to the Brooklyn botanical gardens I drew this guy while recovering from heatstroke."


"This ghost is having the worst afterlife ever. I don’t know why he’s full of bees, but it’s awful for him on so many levels. First of all, it’s uncomfortable, obviously. Secondly, none of the other ghosts want to hang out with him because the loud buzzing is distracting. Third, these aren’t the kind of bees who make honey so he doesn’t even get to enjoy that perk. The only bright side of his insect infestation is that it makes scaring non-floaters (what ghosts call living people) easier because he’s flipping freaky."


"I built a little quarter scale model of this ghost out of an old coffee can, an old pocket watch, and a coffee maker."


"I bet ghosts actually do this. If I walked downstairs one night and found a ghost in my hallway, I would be surprised, but I would be slightly less surprised to find him looking at his phone instead of booing me. Hey, ghosts are only human. DEAD HUMANS, AS WE ALL ONE DAY SHALL BE."

Want to win a copy of 100 Ghosts? Come up with an idea for your own harmless spook, and leave it in the comments section below! We'll pick our five favorites and send them a book. You have until midnight on Sunday, September 15. Good luck!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]