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What the Financial Crisis Means for Spam, Psychics, Hosiery & More

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It's hard to find something not impacted by our current financial crisis. Here are 12 examples of what the recession means for specific things, from Spam to sex addiction.

1. Spam

It looks like meat, it tastes like meat, but it's a far cheaper substitute for meat. It's Spam! And it's booming. Though Hormel's share price has fallen with the overall market, Spam sales are soaring as the economic crisis leaves consumers strapped for cash. Interestingly enough, Spam, the "crazy tasty" mix of ham, pork, sugar, salt, potato starch and a sodium nitrite, was invented during the Great Depression and became a staple for Allied troops overseas in the 1940s.

2. Marriage and Divorce

Breaking up is hard to do, especially in this economy. While it may be too early to know the impact of the crisis on divorce rates, it appears divorces may have slowed down since the financial crisis began. That's because despite most arguments being over financial issues, it may just be too expensive to pay the legal fees of a divorce and support two households. In fact, during the Great Depression, divorce rates dropped sharply, though they picked back up immediately thereafter.

3. Recycling

The plunge in commodity prices has taken a toll on recyclers. In fact, the whole movement may come to a halt as oil and metal prices fall. Used newspaper, used cardboard, and scrap metal prices have also seen a drop, partially due to dwindling home construction and slower automobile production. Some recyclers are closing their doors, and in the UK entire city councils are abandoning their recycling efforts, as they are no longer economically feasible.

4. Psychics

"There is no rhyme or reason to the way the market is trading," says a personal trader. "When conditions are this volatile, consulting a psychic can be as good a strategy as any other." Psychics, astrologers, palm readers and "professional advice-givers" say business is booming as clients come to them seeking financial guidance. Clients will typically pay $75 to $1000 for an hour's worth of insight!

5. Holiday Parties

Just as you suspected, companies are cutting back on their holiday galas. ABC News announced the cancellation of its annual celebration. American Express did the same and then some "“ announcing the cancellation of 2009's celebration as well.

But what about the caterers? 56% of party planners say that their corporate holiday party numbers will be off more than 10% this year compared to last. They're scrambling to come up with innovative, more somber types of gatherings like luncheons, pot-lucks, and receptions rather than galas, caviar, and glam.

6. Used Car Sales

The used car business is flourishing! Specifically, used car companies that offer buy-here/pay-here financing for lower credit individuals who have been locked out of traditional lending.

But if used isn't your thing, it may still be a decent time to buy new. That's because even steady growth car makers like Honda and Toyota have seen 24% and 32% declines, respectively. Car dealers are desperate to get rid of inventory and are offering invoice and below invoice prices. Look for dealers that have a lot of inventory, because they'll likely offer the best deals.

7. Iceland Tourism

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Looking for a good holiday or spring trip? Look to Iceland!

Once an economic success story, this small country is now, well, bankrupt. If you were attune to Fannie and Freddie and the big Wall Street break-up, you may have missed Iceland's fall. Its three largest banks were oversized and highly leveraged, and seemed ready for collapse in early October. Iceland's currency, the krona, is essentially valueless, and foreign trade has come to a halt. Luckily, the IMF and its Nordic neighbors have stepped in, lending $2.1 billion and $2.5 billion respectively to help the country recover.

But tourism appears to be on the rise. Airfare search engines report a 400% increase in Iceland flight searches. A recent search of round-trip flights from New York found tickets at a record low of $471.

8. College Endowments

Ivy League schools aren't immune to the financial crisis. Since many college endowments are invested in alternative asset classes, which have lost value, they're seeing unprecedented losses. Many college and university endowments are projected to have decreased by 30% this fiscal year. For Harvard, that may mean an $11 billion drop.

That may mean a decrease in financial aid "“ especially because lenders can no longer sell their securitized loans in the secondary market to get new money to offer new student loans. Despite Congress' Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act of 2008, which authorizes the Education Department to buy federal student loans from education lenders for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, there's a chance financial aid may fall short.

9. Lipstick & Hosiery Sales

The Lipstick Indicator is an economic theory proposed by Leonard Lauder, the chairman of Estée Lauder Companies. The theory states that a direct relation exists between rising sales in tubes of lipstick and a falling financial market "“ the worse the economy, the more women indulge in small purchases, like $10 tubes of lipstick. There are conflicting reports as to whether Lauder's theory is holding up this downturn. Perhaps hosiery sales will supplant lipstick as the indicator of choice. Overall hosiery sales rose 2.3% this year, with Spanx seeing a 77% increase in sales compared to last year.

10. NASCAR

Very few sports have been hit harder by the economic crisis than NASCAR. From ticket sales to souvenir sales to team sponsorship from large companies, racing is reeling. That's because an average NASCAR team relies on corporate sponsors for 80% of its budget. That's four times the percentage of an NFL franchise's budget. And many of those corporate sponsors, including the Big Three "“ GM spent $578M in sports advertising in 2007, including NASCAR "“ are facing high-profile hard times of their own. As a result, some NASCAR teams, including Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc., have merged in an attempt to attract corporate sponsors.

11. Personal Maintenance

According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, gym memberships have been on the decline since 2007. There's no sign that these former gymrats are instead opting for cosmetic surgery "“ 53% of plastic surgeons of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery say business has slowed.

12. Sex & Sex Addiction

Will the financial crisis spark a baby boom? It just might. According to the Telegraph, sales of sex toys, pregnancy tests, maternity clothes, and baby equipment are soaring. But that's not the only place sex may have increased. Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan psychotherapist, has seen a big jump in the number of Wall Street workers who seek help for the sex addictions. Apparently, the economic crisis has sparked "maladaptive coping mechanisms" among bankers, according to Jodi Conway, a sex addiction therapist in New Jersey.

Read more of what Diana learned today here.

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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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