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5 of the World's Unluckiest People

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Some folks are lightning rods for success. Others are just lightning rods.

1. The Civil War’s Charlie Brown

Wilmer McLean just wanted everyone to get off his lawn. In 1861, the Battle of Bull Run—the Civil War’s first major skirmish—started near his farm. (McLean’s house was used as a Confederate headquarters.) One year later, soldiers traipsed back onto McLean’s property, sparking the Second Battle of Bull Run. Combined, the battles resulted in more than 20,000 casualties. By 1863, McLean was tired of having strangers die in his yard and moved to southern Virginia. But the war followed him. In 1865, the armies sparred one last time—near McLean’s new property. General Lee would sign the truce, of all places, in McLean’s parlor. McLean recalled: “The war began in my front yard and ended up in my front parlor.” At least he had a front-row seat to history.

2. Mr. Electricity

Seven is a lucky number to some, but Roy Sullivan would disagree—he’s been struck by lightning seven times. A Virginia park ranger, he had such bad luck that, on one occasion, a bolt struck him inside a ranger station, setting his hair on fire. After that, he carried a can of water wherever he went. But Sullivan’s seventh strike was possibly his strangest. Sullivan was trout fishing, and after Mother Nature lit him up, a bear stole a fish hooked on his line. When Sullivan recovered, he hit the bear with a stick, got into his car, and drove off in a daze—perhaps feeling lucky that the bear didn’t see him as a main course.

3. Tough Ship

Violet Jessop and Davy Jones were not on good terms. In 1911, Jessop was working aboard the RMS Olympic when the liner collided with a British warship. One year later, she was aboard the Olympic’s sister ship, the Titanic, when it became a little too intimate with an iceberg. (Again, she survived.) Later, during World War I, Jessop worked aboard the fleet’s third sister ship—the Britannic—­when it, too, struck either a torpedo or mine and sank. Oral hygiene being high on her list of priorities, Jessop refused to abandon ship until she saved her toothbrush. Today, she remains a hero to shipwreck enthusiasts and dentists everywhere.

4. Alabama’s Biggest Rock Star

Ann Hodges made history simply by taking a nap. In 1954, she was resting on her couch in Alabama when a hunk of rock burst through the ceiling, bounced off her radio, and smacked into her hip. It was a meteorite. This being the height of the Cold War, Americans were paranoid about junk falling from the sky, so the police confiscated it. A public uproar ensued, with folks insisting that the rock rightfully belonged to Hodges. (She was, after all, the first person in recorded history ever to be struck by a meteorite.) Instead, the court handed the hunk of iron to Hodges’s landlord, who returned it to her in exchange for $500.

5. Maine Attraction

Jeanne “Pixie” Rogers must have stepped under too many ladders when she was little. At 18, she fell off a cruise ship and down an open manhole. As reported by the Bangor ­Daily­ News, the Maine consignment shop owner has been strangled, mugged, and struck by lightning—twice. Years later, a bat got caught in her hair, and she had to drive to the vet to have it removed. Worst of all, she once pantsed Mr. Rogers (no relation). Seems that while hoisting herself out of a public swimming pool, Pixie Rogers inadvertently yanked on the beloved TV personality’s swim trunks, giving everybody a grand view of Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]