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The Weird Week in Review

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Dog Elected Mayor of Minnesota Town

Duke is a 7-year-old Great Pyrenees who lives in Cormorant, Minnesota. He was elected mayor of the town by a landslide over his opponent, store owner Richard Sherbrook. The exact vote count was not revealed, but Duke got the vast majority of the town’s twelve votes. Sherbrook even voted for Duke. The tiny town was established in 1874, but has never had a mayor before. The new mayor will be sworn in Saturday. As for his salary, he will be paid in dog food, a year’s supply donated by Tuffy’s Pet Food. 

This Cat’s Hobby is Riding the Bus

Fee Jeanes and her family moved to Bridport, Dorset, UK, 19 months ago, to a home near the bus station. Their 15-year-old cat Dodger quickly made friends with bus drivers and riders, who would even feed the cat occasionally. Jeanes recently found out her cat has been riding around on bus trips in his spare time.

"He is an old boy and is very friendly. At first Dodger kept going to the bus station because people there fed him tit-bits and scraps of food.

"But then he started climbing on board the buses because they are almost like greenhouses when it is sunny.

"Then last week I found out he had travelled to Charmouth and back, which is a 10 mile round trip.

"I hadn't seen him all morning until my daughter Emily told me one of her friends had just seen him on the bus at Charmouth.

The bus drivers know the cat well, and make sure Dodger gets off at his home stop when the day ends. The bus company says they do not encourage the cat to ride, but don’t mind him. As a senior citizen, he is eligible for free rides.

Woman Tries to Stop Plane on Runway

A woman scaled the fence at the airport in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sunday to stop a plane from taking off. As she ran across the tarmac, one plane that had just landed had to be diverted. The 37-year-old woman had earlier gone to an airline desk and asked the company to stop a plane from taking off because she believed her partner was leaving on it to go see another woman. After the unnamed woman was caught, she was taken to a hospital with cuts and bruises. The airport fence has three miles of barbed wire for security. The woman’s partner was not on the plane. The RCMP says she will not face charges, but airport officials will review their security measures.

Raccoons Compete in Laundry Contest

Raccoons are famous for washing their food before eating it, so why not put them to work washing clothes? A zoo in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, staged a washing contest between their raccoons, named Masha and Artem. The raccoons were given tiny pieces of clothing to wash and they went to work, but had a tendency to interfere with each other. Zoo visitors judged the two on their quality of work and their enthusiasm, and the contest was declared a draw. You can see a video here

Pilot’s Arm Falls Off While Landing Plane

A UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch report revealed an incident in February in which a pilot was landing a small commuter jet in Belfast when his arm fell off.

The 46-year-old pilot, described byFlybe as among is “most experienced and trusted” pilots, wears a prosthetic limb and said that he believed he had securely fixed the arm in place earlier, but with heavy winds, once he deactivated the Dash 8 aircraft’s autopilot as he prepared to land the plane that’s when the arm troubles began.

Asked why a pilot with only one arm was flying a plane in the first place, Flybe’s safety director, Captain Ian Baston, said that the budget airline had a policy of equal opportunity employment and therefore “in common with most airlines, we do employ staff with reduced physical abilities.”

The pilot lost control of the plane only briefly and still guided it to a safe and bumpy landing using one arm. He promised to secure his arm better in the future.

Man Reports Prostitutes for Charging Too Much

An unnamed 55-year-old man in Sweden called police in Gothenberg to report he had been robbed. When police arrived in Rosenlund, a red light strict, the man admitted that he gave two women money for sex, but they had overcharged him (the equivalent of $436 each for an hour) and he felt cheated. The strange part is that selling sex is not against the law in Sweden, but paying for it is illegal. So the police charged the man who complained, and he faces a fine of 24,500 kronor ($3,561), for reporting his own crime.

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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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