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The Weird Week in Review

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Man Fights Off Shark, Stitches Up Leg, Goes to Pub

James Grant of Colac Bay, New Zealand, was spear fishing with friends when he was attacked by a shark. He stabbed the shark with a knife, which caused it to leave. When he got out of the water, he saw a deep gash in his leg where the shark bit him. Grant, a junior doctor, removed his wetsuit and stitched up the wound, using supplies from a first aid kit. Then he and his friends went to the Colac Bay Tavern. The bar staff gave him a towel because his wound was bleeding onto the floor. Sometime afterward, he went to a hospital for a proper re-stitching. Grant plans to return to the water as soon as the stitches are out.

Genius Gets Free Lunch for a Year from Airline

This scheme would never pay off with an American airline, but it was well worth it for an unnamed man in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. He bought a first-class ticket for a flight, then went to the airport and showed the ticket for admittance to China Eastern Airlines VIP lounge, where they serve complimentary meals with complimentary drinks. Then he left the lounge and changed his ticket to a flight for the next day. Then he returned and got another complimentary meal, with drinks. He changed his itinerary and took meals more than 300 times! When the ticket was about to expire, he cancelled it and got a full refund. The airline acknowledged that he did nothing illegal. What do you want to bet that China Eastern Airlines will change its policies soon to be more in line with other airlines that charge a fee for changes in itinerary and for cancellations?

90 Farting Cows Start Fire in Germany

This is what happens when you put too many well-fed cows in one shed. Maybe it was cold outside, but close quarters do not stop cows from farting. And the gas from 90 cows can be dangerous.

High levels of the gas had built up in the structure in the central German town of Rasdorf, then "a static electric charge caused the gas to explode with flashes of flames," the force said in a statement.

The report says the roof was damaged. We can imagine it being blown clean off. The cows fared pretty well, with only one animal being treated for burns.

River Flows with Scotch Whisky

It wasn’t a truck spill, but a serious mistake. A truck carrying 27,500 liters of Scotch whisky emptied its cargo into the wrong vat at a bottler in Scotland. The vat overflowed, and 6,600 liters went into the River Ayr. Don’t head to Scotland to take advantage of the situation, because the spill happened in 2011. This week, a fine of £12,000 was levied against Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse Limited for polluting the river (need I say, one man’s pollution is another man’s Scotch and water). The company has set systems in place to ensure that such a mistake doesn’t happen again.

Thousands of Chickens Cross the Road

Why did all the chickens cross the road? To get to the other side, silly! And also because they were escaping from the truck that was transporting them when it overturned. The truck was filled with chicken coops when it turned over on a highway in Guizhou province. Coops containing about 3,000 chickens broke open, and the birds made a run for it. Police jumped in to help round up about 900 of the chickens. The rest are presumable wandering the countryside. Let’s just hope they look both ways before crossing the road again. With video.

Town Buried in Tumbleweeds

The residents of Clovis, New Mexico, were surprised when they woke up Monday morning to find they were buried in tumbleweeds! A wind from the north brought tumbleweeds to Clovis, and they settled up against the houses on the north side of town. Some homes had tumbleweeds up to their roofs, and doors and garages were covered. City crews went to work, and neighbors pitched in to help dig out the homes that were obstructed by the weeds. They are in the process of hauling them all to the city landfill, and hope to have the town cleaned up by the weekend.

Marijuana to Be Judged at Denver County Fair

County fairs are traditionally the time to show off garden produce and livestock, and maybe ride a ferris wheel and eat fried food on a stick. The tradition spread to Denver only in 2011, with a fair that started out to be new and different. What will be new and different this year is marijuana judging and a joint-rolling competition.

There won't actually be any marijuana at the fairgrounds. The judging will be done off-site, with photos showing the winning entries. And a live joint-rolling contest will be done with oregano, not pot.

But county fair organizers say the marijuana categories will add a fun twist on Denver's already-quirky county fair, which includes a drag queen pageant, tattoo competitions and a contest for homemade robots.

The Denver County Fair will run August 1-3.

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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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