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8 Strange Things Cities Decided to Ban

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If you want to have a pet goldfish, park in your own driveway, or die, here are some places you probably shouldn't live.

1. Winnie the Pooh

The beloved, honey-craving bear was suggested to be the symbol of a children's playground in Poland, but the Tuszyn city council struck the idea down with a vengeance. "The problem with that bear is it doesn't have a complete wardrobe," a council member said. "It is half naked which is wholly inappropriate for children." It got uglier. Winnie was called a "hermaphrodite," and another council member argued, "This is very disturbing but can you imagine! The author was over 60 and cut [Winnie the Pooh's] testicles off with a razor blade because he had a problem with his identity.”

2. Satan

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If the Son of Perdition is looking to vacation in Florida, it looks like he'll have to skip the town of Inglis. In 2001, the town of 1400 residents banned Satan by official decree, thanks to a proclamation written by Mayor Carolyn Risher. One of the five official copies hangs on Risher's wall next to a poster of Elvis and a print of The Last Supper. The other four were rolled up and sealed into wooden posts marked "Repent, Request and Resist," which were then staked into the ground near the town's four entrances. If you're wondering, the decree reads in full:

Be it known from this day forward that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis. Satan is hereby declared powerless, no longer ruling over, nor influencing, our citizens.

3. Dying

Bad news, residents of Falciano del Massico, Italy: There's no more room in the cemetery, so you'll need to find someplace else to pass away. To solve the city's post-mortem overcrowding situation, Mayor Giulio Cesare Fava issued the following ordinance in March 2012: "It is forbidden, with immediate effect, to all citizens resident in the municipality of Falciano del Massico, and to whoever passes by its territory, to cross the border of earthly life and to enter the afterlife." At least two elderly residents have already defied the order.

4. Slapping people with a dead eel

Residents of Lyme Regis, Dorset, are no longer lawfully permitted to slap each other with a 5-foot-long conger eel. It's officially known as 'conger-cuddling' or 'doing the conger', and the game—which involves knocking opponents off of a platform by swinging the dead fish at them—was both wildly popular in the community and a source of funding for a local lifeboat charity for 32 years. Despite its long history and general appeal, 'doing the conger' was banned in 2006 after an animal rights group complained that the game was disrespectful to dead animals.

5. Gossip

Bad-mouthing your neighbors is serious business in Icononzo, Colombia. In 2005, Mayor Ignacio Jimenez argued that waggling tongues could be the difference between life and death for residents of the city, thanks to ongoing warfare between Marxist rebels and far-right paramilitary outlaws. At the time, at least 8 prisoners in the local jailhouse were there "purely by gossip" after other residents speculated that they might be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In order to impress upon his constituents the need for thoughtful discourse and reason in the justice system, Jimenez outlawed gossip entirely. Aside from potentially costing another person his or her life, the punishment for gossip now includes hefty fines and as many as four years in jail.

6. Goldfish in bowls

Monza, Italy, is home to the country's Formula 1 Grand Prix and what is probably the most empathetic animal rights legislation on the planet. In 2004, the city announced that it would henceforth be illegal to house goldfish in goldfish bowls because "a fish kept in a bowl has a distorted view of reality...and suffers because of this. Also, this type of receptacle generally doesn't have a filter and doesn't allow for good oxygenation." Additionally, small animals given as prizes and dyed Easter chicks were banned in the same measure.

7. Spitting

In 2009, fears of a swine flu epidemic gripped the world. In a bid to halt the spread of the virus in Coulaines, France, mayor Christophe Rouillon outlawed spitting—and not just in public. Rouillon specifically indicated that footballers should take the lead by ceasing any sideline expectoration activity immediately, and suggested that spitting on the field should be treated as foul play: "One spitting incident should be punished with a yellow card, and repeat offenders should be shown a red card."

8. Parking in your own driveway

If you prefer driving a pickup truck to a sedan, you might reconsider moving to Coral Gables, Florida, where parking a truck in your own driveway could land you a $100-per-day fine... if you're a first-time offender. After that, it's up to $500 each day. The ban has been in place since 2003, and many people believe it's a (successful) bid to keep blue-collar families out of a ritzy neighborhood. A resident contested the ban and the city spent $250,000 in taxpayer funds defending it all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, where they won.

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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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May 23, 2017
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