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J.M. Barrie’s Literary All-Star Cricket Team

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Sotheby's via Getty Images

For whatever reason—perhaps because writing can be a rather solitary venture—literary types have long gathered together in search of other pursuits. A modern example is Stephen King’s band, The Rock Bottom Remainders. Members of the band have ebbed and flowed over the years, but the lineup has at various times included Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Matt Groening, James McBride, and Scott Turow.

But in the late 1880s, writers couldn’t exactly pick up an electric guitar to blow off some steam. Instead, J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan—who was born on this day in 1860—decided to form an amateur cricket team, and recruited many of his famous friends to join him.

Just like The Rock Bottom Remainders, the lineup was constantly revolving. A few of the writers that participated included:

  • A.A. Milne, author of the Winnie the Pooh series
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series
  • P.G. Wodehouse, author of the Jeeves and Wooster series
  • H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine and other science fiction works
  • Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book
  • E.W. Hornung, author of the A.J. Raffles series
  • G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown detective novels

Intending to poke fun at their own abilities, the group called themselves the “Allahakbarries.” They were under the impression that “Allah akbar” meant “Heaven help us” in Arabic. (It actually means “God is great.”)

As you might expect, the athletic performance of such an eclectic group of creatives was a bit of a mixed bag. While some members of the team, including Arthur Conan Doyle, were quite proficient at cricket, others were not so athletically inclined. One showed up in pajamas, and Barrie discovered that another didn’t know which side of the bat to hit with.

Though he was a good player, Conan Doyle had his share of mishaps, too—like the time he accidentally set himself on fire while playing a non-Allahakbarries match. He was up to bat, and the pitch hit him in the thigh, striking a box of matches he had in his pocket. In his own words:

“A little occasional pain is one of the chances of cricket, and one takes it as cheerfully as one can, but on this occasion it suddenly became sharp to an unbearable degree. I clapped my hand to the spot, and found to my amazement that I was on fire. The ball had landed straight on a small tin vesta box in my trousers pocket, had splintered the box, and set the matches ablaze.”

Occasionally, the Allahakbarries were even the more experienced team. When they played a team called the Artists, one of their players was overheard talking about how he wasn’t about to sacrifice his painter’s hands for “a dirty leather ball.”

But from their debut in 1887 until their final match in 1913, the team was never overly concerned about winning. “We played in the old style, caring little about the game and a good deal about a jolly time and pleasant scenery,” Conan Doyle later wrote. “There were many whimsical happenings, which were good fun if they were not good cricket.”

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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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