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6 Crazy Things I Just Learned About the Metric System 

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People have been going haywire over this map of countries that don't use the Metric System. While grams and kilometers aren't exactly embraced here, the US has definitely been flirting with the measurement scheme for a very long time (Jefferson was an advocate!). Here's a look at 6 quirky things I just learned about the Metric System.

1. There Used to Be a Metric Calendar (and Metric Clocks!)

Back when the whole Metric rage was taking place, the French decided to play with time as well. The Metric Calendar (also called the French Republican Calendar) divided the year into 12 months. While the 12 doesn't exactly fit into the scheme, each of those months was divided into three 10 day weeks. Each day was broken down into 10 decimal hours, and each hour was 100 decimal minutes each. While metric clocks and calendars were designed to push the new system, the idea never really took off, and mandatory use of the system was suspended just three years into its launch in 1795.

2. There's a Magazine Devoted to It: Metric Today

Actually, it's more of a bi-monthly newsletter. Published by the USMA (U.S. Metric Association), a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the metrication of society, Metric Today covers all the things you need to know about getting metric in America. The current issue covers topics like:

  • How did John Deere metricate?
  • How will hydrogen be measured when fueling cars?
  • What metric-related holidays occur in October?

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Of course, the newsletter is just a small part of their doings. They also sell give out awards, work with the government to push the metric agenda, and sell flashcards and other metric-centric stuff. This set of posters is my absolute favorite. Sadly, while the USMA is incredibly savvy about their measuring system (each poster is billed at 55 cm high by 32 cm wide), they do not accept orders via the net. Instead, you have to print out a form, and mail it in with your check.

3. There are a Handful of Resisters

As the map above shows, three countries make up the Axis of Medieval. The U.S. is one, but which other nations are willing to join us in brandishing their yard sticks and uniting against the world's most popular measurement system? It turns out that our only allies in this fight are Liberia and Myanmar

4. But America Likes it for her Money

It's funny that while we've shunned the metric system in all other ways, it made total sense to us in terms of our cash. Through the Mint Act of 1792, the U.S. became the first country to create a decimal based currency. Amazingly, the idea of setting 100 pennies to the dollar was novel for the time, especially since the dominant currency back then was the British pound/shilling/pence scheme which, at the time, set 12 pence to the shilling, and 20 shillings to the pound.

5. Thomas Jefferson, Lord Kelvin and Alexander Graham Bell were all Passionate Supporters

In their own words:

Lord Kelvin: "I look upon our English system as a wickedly brain destroying piece of bondage under which we suffer. The reason why we continue to use it is the imaginary difficulty of making a change, and nothing else; but I do not think in America that any such difficulty should stand in the way of adopting so splendidly useful a reform."

Alexander Graham Bell: "After the metric system has been adopted by the U.S. and our people have become accustomed to its use we would no more dream of going back to the present system of weights and measures than we would think of carrying on the processes of arithmetic through the medium of the old Roman letters in place of the Arabic numerals we now employ."
Thomas Jefferson was also an early and vocal advocate. You can read his proposal from 1790 here.

6. It's Illegal to Discriminate Against It

Or at least it was. According to the Metric Act of 1866, the USMA reports that "This law made it unlawful to refuse to trade or deal in metric quantities." Please bring that up the next time you want to purchase a 2x4 (or rather, a 5.08x10.16) at Lowes.

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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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