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8 Things You Might Not Know About Iceland

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Iceland has been in the news lately, and the news has not been good. The island nation's three major banks have collapsed, causing ripples throughout Europe. But rather than fixate on the financial, let's take a look at some other aspects of the Land of Fire and Ice.

1. Mark Your Calendar
March 1 is Beer Day (Bjordagur) in Iceland, when natives celebrate the end of prohibition against the frothy brews. "Real" beer (of more than 2.2 percent alcohol by volume) had been outlawed since 1915, and the ban wasn't lifted until 1989. Hey, if you went almost 75 years without decent beer, you'd find a reason to throw a party, too.

2. The Sun Also Rises "¦ Sometimes
The sun shines virtually 24 hours a day during the peak of summer in Iceland. In mid-winter, however, it's only light about four to five hours each day.

3. Say What?
The national language of Iceland is Icelandic, which hasn't evolved much from the way it was spoken centuries ago. English and Danish are also popular—good news, as the native tongue is indecipherable to non-speakers. Icelandic has two unique letters, "thorn" (pronounced "th" as in "thing") and "eth" (pronounced "th" as in "them"). Similar logic applies to the English words "broad" and "road," which should be pronounced the same but are not.

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4. All Work and No Play Makes Iceland Rich
Icelanders are notorious for their work ethic. Averaging 43.5 hours, they have the longest work week in Europe. Not surprisingly, they also have one of the highest standards of living in the world. (Iceland ranked #1 in a recent C.W. Post survey measuring economic opportunity and quality of life.)

5. Come to North America for the Available Food"¦
When overpopulation, famine and disease struck Iceland in the late 19th century, it prompted a mass exodus from the frozen land. Most immigrants ended up in the Canadian province of Manitoba, where they created a colony called New Iceland. But many others landed in Utah and converted to Mormonism.

6. "¦Stay for the Mormons!
Today, Spanish Fork, Utah, remains home to one of the largest Icelandic communities in the United States. If you can't afford a plane ticket to the real thing, head to Spanish Fork, where you can visit the Icelandic Monument or attend the annual Icelandic cultural festival, hosted by the Icelandic Association of Utah.

7. No, It's Not a Typo
Between November 1975 and June 1976, fishing disputes between Great Britain and Iceland, known as the "Cod War," exploded in a flurry of net-cutting and boat-ramming. Name-calling was also resorted to, although neither side accepts responsibility for "starting it."

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8. It's Really Green
The old joke is true — Iceland is green, and Greenland is ice. When Norwegian explorer Eric the Red made the trek from Iceland to the larger nearby island in the 10th century and colonized it, he decided to call it Greenland because he felt more people might be willing to move there if it had an inviting name.

(Do we have any readers in Iceland? What else should people know about the country?)

This article was written by Katie Finley and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Images courtesy of Scanam World Tours.

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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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