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The Weird Week in Review

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Volunteers Eat Worms for Space Program

Protein-rich mealworms are on the menu in China’s space program. The idea was rejected long ago by NASA and other space agencies, because the morale of astronauts was taken into consideration. However, the Chinese are seriously considering the worms for long-term space travel. Three volunteers are trying out various recipes made with mealworms inside the Moon Palace One biosphere at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Observers say the volunteer diners seem “healthy and happy” with their diet. One must wonder why the volunteers weren’t directly quoted.

Crocodile Injured by Falling Accountant

A performing crocodile was battered and bruised after being squashed by an accountant who fell on him. Both work for a circus in Russia, and the incident happened on their tour bus. The bus lurched, and the 250-pound female circus accountant was thrown onto the animal.

Both reportedly sustained shock and minor injuries. But the crocodile, named Fedya, apparently fared worse than the accountant. He vomited for three hours after the accidental full body slam, though a medical examination found he was clear of any internal injuries, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported.

Fedya had to skip a performance that had been scheduled for later in the evening, however.

The accountant was reprimanded for not wearing a seatbelt.

Thief Takes Bread Truck, Delivers Bread

It’s one thing to steal a vehicle, but David Bastar of Nanuet, New York, apparently had more on his mind than just theft. After driving away in a Grimaldi’s bread truck around 3AM Monday, he made the usual rounds to deliver the bread to various Manhattan restaurants! Bastar saw the delivery schedule posted inside the truck and dropped off bread at three locations before tossing out bread as he drove down Lexington Avenue. He proceeded to Queens, and began to follow a limousine. The limo driver called police, who pulled over the bread truck and apprehended Bastar. He was sent to Elmhurst Hospital’s psychiatric ward.

Reporter Discovers He’s Allergic to Newspaper Ink

Michael Dresser has worked for The Baltimore Sun newspaper for many years. For years, he has also been fighting mysterious symptoms like puffiness around the eyes and skin rashes. He has now been diagnosed as being allergic to printers ink! More specifically, Dresser is allergic to the pine resin in newspaper ink. The irony of the situation does not escape him. Dresser notified his co-workers that he will be wearing gloves at the office from now on. Or at least until the newspaper business goes completely online.

Clown and Monkey Rob Bank

Wednesday morning, the Capon Valley Bank in Baker, West Virginia, was robbed of an undisclosed amount of money by a clown accompanied by a monkey. The man wearing the clown mask was also wearing a large nightgown.

The other suspect, possibly a woman, had a slender build, wore a brown monkey mask, a black hooded-sweatshirt, and gray sweat pants.

Police say the smaller suspect had what appeared to be a firearm.

After stealing an undisclosed amount of money, the two left the bank in a blue Chevy Malibu with Va. registration, heading towards U.S. Route 48.

The couple’s getaway car was found later, abandoned and on fire. It had been stolen from a car dealership. The robbery was captured on the bank’s video surveillance system.

Happy Birthday to the Oldest Person in America!

Today, Jeralean Talley of Inkster, Michigan, turns 115 years old. The supercentenarian gets around with a walker and enjoys spending time with her 14-month-old great-great-grandson. Talley will celebrate her birthday with friends and family (she lives with her 76-year-old daughter) with a party at her church on Sunday, and a trip to the doctor today. There are a few hundred people around the world who are over 110 years old, but very few who have lived in three different centuries. Talley is the oldest living American

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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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