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The Great American Stupidity Quiz (and the baffling start to the Civil War)

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By Adam Winer, author of How Dumb Are You?

HDAY.pngNational Lampoon just published a fun little book I wrote called How Dumb Are You? The Great American Stupidity Quiz. It's full of questions every mildly-educated American SHOULD be able to answer—but often can't. Questions like, "What's the capital of Canada?" and "Here's a dime. Who's the dude pictured on it?" Before publication, we ran the series past a test audience and found out, for example, that only 46% of Americans recognized FDR on the dime. Those stats are included in the book, so you can test, on a question-by-question basis, exactly what percentage of the American population you are officially smarter than. Each answer also comes with a rip-roaring Fun Fact.
This week I'll be revisiting questions from the book, and then exploring the answers for your delight. Sound good? Then let's get stupid"¦

Today's question: What was the first state to secede from the Union?

Answer: South Carolina. (If you got this wrong, you are dumber than 45% of America!)

The Scoop: Not only was South Carolina the first state to secede, but the first shots of the Civil War were also fired at Charleston Harbor's Fort Sumter. It was a battle full of interesting quirks. On April 11, 1861, Confederate forces ringed the South Carolina fort, which was low on supplies. When the fort's defenders refused to surrender, Confederates opened fire. And there you had it: Civil War!

But that barely scrapes the surface. The Union soldiers in the fort were so low on ammunition, they waited three hours before bothering to return fire. Over the course of the battle, Confederate troops fired some 4,000 rounds at their enemy. Amazingly, no one was killed. (Sounds kind of like an episode of The A-Team.) The Northern forces weathered 33 straight hours of bombardment, finally surrendering after a cannonball set their fort ablaze.

What makes the story even stranger is that when the troops finally surrendered, it wasn't even to the right person!

Picture 42.pngBefore the Confederate representatives reached the fort, a former Texas senator, who was working on a nearby island, rowed over and—without any authorization—demanded the Union's surrender. Which he oddly received.
When the real Confederate forces showed up, and everything got straightened out, they gave the Union soldiers a bit of a pass. Because of the valor of the fort's troops, they allowed the men to raise the U.S. flag one final time and give a 100-gun salute.
Unfortunately, an accidental explosion caused by that salute ended up killing a Union gunners. That soldier was the only casualty of the battle. He was the first casualty of the Civil War... and he was killed by friendly fire.

Want to read more from Adam? Pick up a copy of How Dumb Are You? at your local bookstore or at Amazon. Or for more information, visit

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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]