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mainestatelibraryfriends.org

The Phantom of the Maine State Library

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mainestatelibraryfriends.org

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home.

This week we’ll gather the Scooby Gang in the northeastern-most part of the United States to solve the mystery of The Phantom of the Maine State Library.

In the fall of 1991, employees at the Maine State Library in Augusta wondered if there was a ghost among the aisles.  Odd things, like flashlights, extension cords, and food from the break room refrigerator (mainly pudding cups), were disappearing on a daily basis. At first, security thought the culprits could be some of the workers hired to remove asbestos from the building. But their suspicions changed when, overnight, two refrigerators and a candy machine were nearly cleaned out, and a handwritten note of apology was left behind. As the thefts continued without any signs of a break-in, it became clear that someone was living in the library. 

Delores Pushard, the library’s business manager, claimed this had become such an accepted notion that employees were talking to the ceiling, telling “him,” "If you’re up there and you can hear us, if you need something, let us know."  Meanwhile, security scoured the building, checking every nook and cranny, but were coming up empty. Finally, they looked behind a 1 1/2-foot by 2 1/2-foot panel on the third floor, designed to allow access to the bathroom pipes. It was here, in a cramped crawlspace with barely 5 feet of overhead clearance and temperatures that reached nearly 100 degrees, they found “The Phantom of the Library”: 20-year old Andre Jatho. As the frightened young man tried to hide from the guards, Jatho’s foot broke through a suspended ceiling tile, trapping him until he was apprehended.

Jatho, a former bookstore employee from Santa Clara, California, had traveled to Maine in the hopes of finding a better job.  However, his money ran out along the way, and he had nowhere to live. Jatho soon met a mysterious accomplice who showed him the corridor in the library’s ceiling, saying it had served as a free place to stay before. The two men had lived in the ceiling until the accomplice moved out just a few days before the guards tracked them down.

Aside from pudding cups and flashlights, Jatho and friend had pilfered a TV, three VCRs, an electric fan, steak knives, coffee cups, a crock pot, an overhead projector, and movies and books from the library’s collection, including authors like Twain, Dickens, and Joyce. In addition, they used stolen mail bags to make hammocks that held them suspended above the ceiling so they could safely sleep all day before making their nightly raid for supplies.

Upon his arrest, Jatho was charged with felony burglary and theft. However, as he gave interviews with the press, the people of Maine were impressed by his soft demeanor and ingenuity, and began to see him as a sort of folk hero. The judge in the case acknowledged Jatho’s reputation in the community, and wound up only charging Jatho with criminal trespassing. He was given a suspended $500 fine and had to serve 25 hours at the local elementary school as a reading tutor.

After his release, Jatho hoped to stay, saying he’d been “treated very nicely” by the people of Maine.  However, he wasn’t able to parlay his local fame into lasting employment, and went back home to California a few months later.  

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!   

See all entries in our Strange States series here.

 

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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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