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Stuart Kettell

The Weird Week in Review

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Stuart Kettell

Man Pushes a Brussels Sprout Up a Mountain with His Nose

Stuart Kettell of Balsall Common, West Midlands, UK, is in the process of climbing to the 3,560-foot summit of Mount Snowdon, on his hands and knees, while pushing a sprout along with his nose. He began his quest on Wednesday and hopes to reach the top in four days. Kettell is no stranger to strange stunts, like spending a week in a box and walking the streets on stilts. He does it to raise funds for the charity Macmillan Cancer Support. So far, he’s raised over £40,000, but has lost most of the skin on his knees.

Woman Finds IKEA Bags Stuffed with 80 Skeletons

Kicki Karlén was shocked when she checked inside an IKEA bag among a large number of bags in the basement of her church in Kläckeberga parish, Sweden, and saw human bones. She counted 80 bags of bones, and became angry. Folks from the parish told her the bones had been there since 2009. They were the bones of parishioners who had been buried under the floorboards of the church. They were disinterred when the church renovated to add a wheelchair ramp.

"I was on the team called in to dig out the bones five years ago," archaeologist Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay told The Local.

"Our mission was to document and rebury the bones, which may be as much as 500 years old. But the reburial was delayed and I have no idea why. The plan was to rebury them as soon as possible, but that's up to the church. The county board said they couldn't leave church ground, and it became complicated."

Papmehl-Dufay said it wasn’t he who put the bones in IKEA bags, but from a preservationist’s standpoint, it wasn’t a bad idea. Karlén calls the bags disrespectful.

Indian Women Still Sew in Advanced Age

A government program in Chhattisgarh, India, aims to distribute bicycles to women between the ages of 18-35, and sewing machines to women aged 35-60, to make the lives of working women easier. But records provided by the Chhattisgarh Labour Department under a sunshine law shows some shenanigans. A list of women who received sewing machines includes 6,189 women listed with an age of 114 years, and a dozen who were in their 200s. Fourteen women were listed with ages between 300 and 500 years, and one had an age recorded as 532 years! Around 19,399 sewing machines have been distributed under the program. Although women have been known to lie about their age, they usually keep it within the realm of possibility. Read the rest of the story at The Times of India.

Cat Stuck in Bird Feeder

We make jokes about how cats look at bird feeders as food traps, but this bird feeder trapped the cat instead of the bird. A cat nicknamed Butterscotch in Brandon, Manitoba, got his head stuck inside a bird feeder. The stray is wandering the neighborhood and evades attempts to catch him. Traps, tuna, and sardines do not tempt him. The cat can see around the feeder with one eye, and can even leap fences. No one has yet stepped forward to claim ownership of Butterscotch. It was hoped that he would enter a trap when he is hungry enough, but according to a Brandon & Area Lost Animals Facebook thread with updates on Butterscotch’s predicament, the cat has adapted to the contraption and is able to eat and drink around it, but still has not been caught.

Stem Cell Therapy Patient Grows a Nose in her Spine

An American woman suffering from paralysis volunteered for experimental surgery at Hospital de Egas Moniz in Lisbon, Portugal. Doctors took stem cells from the woman’s nose and implanted them in her spine, hoping that the cells would help her spinal cord regenerate nerve tissue. Other clinical trials involve growing these cells in the lab and classifying and separating desirable cells before transplant. The procedure on this woman, which took place nine years ago, skipped this step. The cells were transplanted directly to her spine, but they failed to regenerate her spinal tissue. Then last year, she was treated in the U.S. for a painful growth in her back.

The surgeons removed a 3-centimetre-long growth, which was found to be mainly nasal tissue, as well as bits of bone and tiny nerve branches that had not connected with the spinal nerves.

The growth wasn't cancerous, but it was secreting a "thick copious mucus-like material", which is probably why it was pressing painfully on her spine, says Brian Dlouhy at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, the neurosurgeon who removed the growth. The results of the surgery have now been published.

The team in Lisbon reports that about 140 patients have received the same therapeutic procedure, and that most showed signs of improvement. Still, it’s a cautionary tale that reminds us that stem cell research is still in its infancy.

Octopus Protects Eggs for 4.5 Years

A female octopus lays eggs once in her lifetime and dies soon after. But until the eggs hatch, she guards them fiercely, to the point of not eating. For one octopus in the Monterey Canyon of the Pacific Ocean, that meant a record-breaking four and half years of diligence! Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute first observed this octopus in 2007, traveling to a brooding site. She was seen again 18 times over the next 53 months, always guarding her eggs. Scientists recognized it was the same octopus by her distinctive scars. In 2011, divers finally found the egg cases empty and the octopus mother gone. The low temperature at the depth of the nest is suspected to be the reason the eggs took so long to hatch, and would also explain how the mother lived so long without food. The 53 months is now a world record for egg brooding, not just for octopuses, but for all animals.

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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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