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Can Anyone Become A Royal?

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You've probably heard about how easy it is to become a minister these days ... websites like the Universal Life Church offer "online ordinations" for a low low price, and only ask that you not submit names to be ordained that are "obviously false" or "profane." But let's say you like the idea of adding a title to your name (like "Reverend") but don't want to deal with the moral implications of being a clergyperson or the hassle of being asked to consecrate marriages all the time. In that case, for a couple hundred clams (or possibly a lot more) you can have a royal title ... usually in less than a week!

Here's the scoop. There are probably a dozen or more online services offering titles -- everything from Lord, Lady, Baron, Baroness, Count, Countess, Duke and Duchess to Marquis, Marchioness, Viscount, Viscountess, Earl, Sir and Dame. Theoretically, anyone can get one, anywhere in the world, and you can be declared the title of your choosing -- be it the Lord of Luxembourg or the Viscount of Hoboken. A tiny parcel of land in England or Scotland is sold to you -- say one foot square -- and then is re-named "Hoboken" or whatever it is you want to be the Lord, Lady or Duke of, etc. The titles are supposedly called "peerages," but unlike most royal titles, they can't be inherited or passed on to your kids.

The most delightful thing about the sites that offer them, however, are their sales pitches:

It's frightening how people in the twenty-first century still perceive a person with a title to be richer, more intelligent and better thought of, than the average Mr. Joe Bloggs. But people do - and you can take advantage of it. If you (or your loved one) check into a hotel with a title and ring in advance I can tell you - the results are astounding! Many of visitors of this website have told me because of their title they have been given wine, fruit, and a room upgrade simply because the management are eager to improve their present class of clientele. The title holder will notice the instant change in people's attitudes. From the very first moment they realize that you have a title they will treat you as if you were royalty. And if you don't correct them - well... its hardly your fault they treat you this way - is it?

The same website goes on to promise their clientele "access to a privileged world" and "the ability to influence people effortlessly." Sounds great!

Some people, however -- notably the (real) Earl of Bradford in England, have begun to decry these online title services as fraudulent:

Con men are marketing phony baronies and dukedoms by the dozen, which they sell on the internet for thousands of pounds. "The British embassy in Washington is so worried about Americans being misled into buying fake titles that it has posted a warning about it on its website," Bradford said.

On the Earl's on website, he writes "You cannot purchase a genuine British title, with one exception, the feudal title of a Scottish baron; and certainly cannot buy a peerage title". Scottish Feudal Baronies fetch a mighty price; the Barony of MacDonald was up for sale at over £1 million."

Well, that certainly puts a crimp in my plans.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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