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Look Up! A "Ring of Fire" Eclipse Blazes the Southern Hemisphere

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An annular solar eclipse on May 20, 2012 as seen from Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Nageezi, Arizona. Image credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

If you're in the Southern Hemisphere, look up tomorrow morning, February 26, and brace yourself. You are going to see the Sun, big and bright as usual—that is, until it turns into a ball of black surrounded by a ring of fire. It’s the sort of sight that begs for two question marks: What is going on up there?? The answer is an annular eclipse. Like its more famous cousin, the total solar eclipse, an annular eclipse involves the moon crossing in front of the Sun. When we’re talking about eclipses, however, not all moons are created equal.

For an eclipse to be “total,” the Sun must be completely obscured by the Moon, leaving only the Sun’s corona shimmering around a black disc. When this happens, the darkest part of the moon’s shadow—the umbra—is cast across the Earth. When viewing this from the zone of totality, where alignment is perfect, day will turn to night (and look around: animals will behave accordingly).

Because the Moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle, it sometimes appears smaller in the sky than at other times. If this “smaller” moon crosses in front of the Sun, you get an annular eclipse. A tremendous black disc will still appear within the Sun but will not obscure our star completely. Rather than witnessing the spectacular view of the Sun’s corona, you’ll see the spectacular view of a fiery sky circle. Day will not turn to night when this happens. Earth at that moment will be in the Moon’s antumbra—that is, a weaker shadow beyond the tip of the umbra.

A swath of South America and Africa—mainly in the southern parts of the continents—will experience this particular eclipse. It will begin on February 26, 2017 at 7:10 a.m. ET, and reach its maximum at 9:58 a.m. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has a map of the eclipse’s path here. Don’t live in the Southern Hemisphere? Don’t feel left out! On August 24, 2017, a small path across the United States—Oregon to South Carolina—will experience a total solar eclipse.


Another view of the annular eclipse on May 20, 2012 as captured by the joint JAXA/NASA Hinode mission. Image credit: JAXA/NASA/Hinode via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s interesting to consider that every day, a giant ball of fire hangs in the sky and we can never really get a good look at it without going blind. If you’re interested in seeing the eclipse tomorrow in person, you’re going to have to go toe-to-toe with a spherical celestial fusion reactor. Your eyes are no match for this, which means you will need special glasses.

DO NOT WEAR REGULAR SUNGLASSES. Stare at the Sun wearing nothing but Ray-Bans and the only good news will be that you can wear them indoors forever thereafter, because you will be blind. The tinted windows in your car, the x-ray film your friend at the hospital swears will work—none of these things will protect you from a lifetime of charred and lifeless retinas. There are no half measures where the Sun is concerned.

There are four things you can wear to look at an eclipse: welder’s goggles with a 14+ rating; special eclipse glasses; a “pinhole projector”; and a specially filtered telescope. Welding goggles can be found at industrial equipment stores, but be sure to get the correct shade—not just any goggles will do, and there is a good chance you are wrong. Eclipse glasses are available at specialty shops, though you'll need to beware of fakes. If you’re a teacher, you can make the eclipse a class event by allowing your students to make pinhole projectors themselves. It requires nothing more than a cardboard box, paper, and aluminum foil.

If all of this sounds like a bit much, or if it’s a cloudy day where you are, you have options! Our friends at Slooh will be covering it, broadcasting footage of the eclipse with commentary from astronomers and solar scientists. Coverage begins on February 26 at 7:00 a.m. ET.

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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]