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4 Overshadowed BCSs

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Before the Bowl Championship Series tarnished the "BCS" acronym for all time "“ or at least until college football institutes a playoff system "“ the Bangladesh Civil Service, Berkhamsted Collegiate School, and British Cardiovascular Society carried on in relative obscurity. As Florida and Oklahoma prepare for Thursday's BCS Championship Game, let's turn the spotlight on some of the lesser-known BCSs, both past and present.

1. Boston Computer Society

Jonathan Rotenberg founded the Boston Computer Society in 1977 at the age of 13 to provide an information-sharing forum for fellow owners of personal computers. While similar user groups emerged throughout the country in the ensuing years, none were as successful as Rotenberg's, which offered computer classes and meetings, and published three magazines. According to the Boston Globe, the Boston Computer Society boasted 32,000 members in 50 states and 40 countries at its peak in the early 1990s. Computer companies, including Apple, used the society's gatherings to make major product announcements; the Apple Macintosh made its East Coast debut at a Boston Computer Society meeting in 1984.


With personal computers becoming an increasingly regular part of everyday life and sources for information about computers growing by the day, Rotenberg decided to leave the group in 1990. "I had spent a long time puzzling through what a redesigned BCS might look like," he recalled in the Globe, "and I wasn't able to come up with an answer." Sound familiar? Facing serious financial problems and with membership down to 18,000, the society voted to dissolve in 1996.

What the Bowl Championship Series could learn from this BCS: Computers are really cool and all, but they probably shouldn't decide college football national champions.

2. British Crime Survey

british-crime-survey.jpgThe British Crime Survey is an annual measure of crime in England and Wales. The survey, which was conducted biennially from its beginning in 1982 until 2000, is comprised of questions for crime victims about the circumstances of any crimes they experienced in the past year. The survey has proved to be an especially valuable measure of domestic violence and sex crimes, which are often unreported to the police.


The British government has used the information collected in the British Crime Survey to establish specific crime reduction programs and to measure these programs' effectiveness from one year to the next. The survey also provides a measure of the public's perception of the criminal justice system and attitude toward crime. According to the survey, crime in England and Wales has been nearly cut in half since 1995.

What the Bowl Championship Series could learn from this BCS: Crime may be down in England, but assaults (USC on Penn State), robberies (Utah being denied a shot at a national championship), and indecent exposure incidents (Virginia Tech and Cincinnati playing in the Orange Bowl) are all on the rise in college football.

3. Bulk Cash Smuggling

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Bulk Cash Smuggling is the undeclared transfer of more than $10,000 in currency "“ most often in the form of cold hard cash "“ into or out of the United States. The U.S. Patriot Act of 2001 made the practice—which is a means of avoiding U.S. currency reporting requirements—punishable by a prison sentence of up to 5 years. In addition, the offender is required to forfeit to the U.S. government all currency or other monetary instruments involved in the attempted operation.

In 2005, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement teamed with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to launch Operation Firewall, a program designed to curtail Bulk Cash Smuggling. In 2007, Operation Firewall resulted in the seizure of nearly $50 million. For comparison's sake, that's about $15 million more than the combined payout Florida and Oklahoma will receive for playing in Thursday's game.

What the Bowl Championship Series could learn from this BCS: A failure to declare "“ be it money or a legitimate national champion "“ is criminal.

4. Baja California Sur

baja-cali.jpgBaja California Sur comprises the southern half of the Baja California peninsula. Since becoming a Mexican state in 1974, the formerly isolated region has slowly evolved into a destination hotspot for tourists. The state is home to the resorts Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, as well as the city of Loreto, which was the first Spanish settlement on the Baja California Peninsula and the capital of Las Californias from 1697-1777.


Other points of cultural significance in Baja California Sur include a church in the city of Santa Rosalia that was supposedly designed by Gustave Eiffel, and the capital city of La Paz, where Hernan Cortes first set foot in 1535. If you saw the movie Troy, you're familiar with Baja California Sur; production for the film was moved from Morocco to the peninsula due to the impending war in Iraq.

What the Bowl Championship Series could learn from this BCS: After staging an absurd 34 games this season, the college football powers that be should make it a goal to keep the number of bowl games in future years below the number of Mexican states (31).

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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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