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Obesity, Global Trade and Beer Prices: Why the Farm Bill is actually cool

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As is usually the case with bills in Congress, I had a lot of trouble believing that the 2007 Farm Bill was applicable to me. After all, the last time I even remember going to a farm was on a kindergarten field trip, when I got goat's milk squirted directly into my mouth and I almost threw up. So, when a friend told me the Farm Bill was really important for everyone, I laughed at him. That is, until he told me beer prices might go up. I did some poking around and, lo and behold, found out that the Farm Bill was actually far more interesting and important than it sounds.

The Farm Bill is the label given to an enormous bundle of programs related to food that comes up for review about every five years. Right now the Senate and House are debating two versions, which will be combined and sent to the President, who is threatening a veto. It controls nearly anything related to food, everything from crop subsidies to food stamps. It looks boring on the surface (unless you're really into distributing funds and studying crops), but once you get past that, it has effects on almost every part of life, from energy prices to foreign trade.

First off, the bill, not surprisingly, has an impact on the diet of the nation. But it is surprising that the impact is negative. That's right, the Farm Bill is making us fat. It subsidizes corn, soybeans and wheat, three crops that contribute to much of the carbs and fats from processed foods. That means farmers are more likely to grow these crops, making them cheaper to manufacturers and thus making fatty foods more plentiful and cheaper. Meanwhile, there's little support for growing produce, which is why those fresh veggies are more expensive than the Hostess cakes. However, this year's bill has given more focus to fruits and veggies, including a boost in funding for produce snacks for schools, so carrot sticks are back on the rise.

One of the more notable results of a farm bill is the food stamp program, which helps the poor buy food. In the version that passed the House, this year's Farm Bill increases funding to the program and expanding the number of people eligible. It's also helping out food banks, by giving them more support and more nutritious options. Believe it or not, the $4 billion boost for food stamps was one of the most contentious parts of the bill.

Even outside of food, the bill has far-reaching consequences. Much of the food produced domestically is exported or traded, so American agriculture affects much of the world's economy. Thus, the Farm Bill can do a lot to other countries, which is why the WTO has gotten involved in the discussions.

If the global economy doesn't interest you, how about energy production? Unless you've been under a rock for the past two years, you know alternative energy sources are hot topics, with people looking for clean options to replace traditional fuels. Ethanol has long looked like one of the best options, but ethanol production is zapping much of the corn supply. According to the laws of supply and demand, that's driving up the price of corn, even with the increased production from subsidies. Lawmakers looking to ease that problem have written in support for cellulose development, which would be used to beer mug.jpgproduce ethanol.

But all that energy talk may have much bigger consequences than just the environment. As farmers move to grow corn, what with the high demand and subsidies, they've moved away from other crops. Among others, there's been a decrease in barley and hops production, which means beer could be going up in price. And college students across the nation cry.

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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]