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Crazy Things The Brits Will Bet On

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Britons, it appears, will bet on anything, from whether it'll snow on Christmas to the outcome of the American presidential election, to not only whether Kate Winslet would win an Oscar this year, but also whether she'd cry during her acceptance speech (odds were 8 to 15 that she would).

The gambling industry in the UK is massive: According to the UK Gambling Commission, gambling operations turned over £84.2 billion in 2006 to 2007. Gross gambling yield (that is, what operators make after paying out, but before deducting operational costs) was estimated at roughly £9.9 billion during that same time period. More than 3400 betting and gambling operators are licensed by the Commission and it shows "“ in virtually every town center, there is an off-track betting storefront, including the appropriately named Ladbrokes.

And they are busy. A 2007 Gambling Commission report also found that around 68 percent of the adult population of Britain reported participating in some form of gambling in the past year, including people who had only participated in the National Lottery Draw. Among the most popular forms of gambling, after the National Lottery, were betting on horse races and playing the slot machines. (The study also found that only about 0.6 percent of the population could be considered problem gamblers.)

Off-track and off-course gambling "“ the kinds of places that take bets and fix odds on things like Kate Winslet's tears "“ has only been allowed since 1961, when British government essentially legalized all of the already existing illegal bookmaking shops operating around the country. But well before that, Britons were betting on virtually anything that moved: In the 19th century, for example, young men of leisure would bet which drop of water on a window would reach the bottom the fastest.

And that barely scrapes the surface of the weird and wonderful bets British people have made "“ here are few of the strangest, most outrageous bets to come out of Britain in the last few hundred years:

ferret.jpgA popular betting game for charity functions and school field days is something called called Ferret Bingo. And it really couldn't be simpler: A ferret is placed in a specially made cage that features seven numbered exit tubes. Players bet on from which tube the ferret will emerge. But really, when ferrets are involved, everybody wins.
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London resident Matthew Dumbrell took 1,000,000 to 1 odds that the world would end before the end of the year 2000 "“ begging the question, how would he collect his winnings?
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In 1964, the prescient David Threlfall put £10 on 1000 to 1 odds with bet makers William Hill that a man would walk on the moon before January 1, 1970. Threlfall won, of course (surely angering those who think the whole lunar landing thing was a sham), but sadly lived only long enough to spend his winnings on a new sports car and crash it.
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brit-bet.jpgIn perhaps the most audacious bet ever, in 2004, professional gambler Ashley Revell, 32, of Kent sold all of his worldly possessions and skipped off to Vegas with $135,000 in his pocket "“ where he sidled up to the roulette wheel and put the lot on red. The wheel hit a red 7, Revell doubled his money "“ and probably breathed a huge sigh of relief. According to the BBC, he described his all-or-nothing, black-or-red bet as the "purest bet you can do," before adding, "I'm not married and I haven't got kids. It's almost like my last chance to go mad."
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However, Revell wasn't the first man to try his luck in one go on the roulette wheel: According to the BBC, in January 1994, a punter (as they call the betting folks over here) from High Wycombe sold his home for £147,000, flew to Las Vegas without telling anyone, and placed it all on red. He won.
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In 1907, John Pierpoint Morgan and Hugh Cecil Lowther Lonsdale, the Fifth Earl of Lonsdale, were dining at the National Sporting Club of London, when Morgan made the claim that no man could walk around the world and not be recognized. Lonsdale disagreed "“ and so was born one of the strangest bets in history.

According to lore, man about town and consummate showman Harry Bensley heard about the bet and decided to take it on, for the princely sum of £21,000 ($100,000 then). By the start of 1908, the bet had changed. The wager allegedly stipulated that Bensley would walk around the world with only one set of underwear, pushing a pram, and wearing a metal helmet. Along the way, he was supposed to find a wife, never reveal his identity, and, in order to finance the journey, sell postcards of himself in his suit of armor. Huge crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square on New Year's Day, 1908, to cheer Bensley on his way, as he shuffled out of town pushing his pram and wearing his visored metal mask. A few stories of his exploits trickled back: He was arrested in Bexleyheath, southwest London, for selling postcards without a license. The local magistrate there, however, respecting the rules of the bet, allowed Bensley to be tried as "the man in the iron mask" and he got off with a fine. But after that, little of the man in the iron mask and his adventures made the news.

Bensley returned to England after six years and, he said, making it mostly around the world, hitting Ireland, Canada, America, Japan, China, India, Turkey, Italy. It was only the start of World War I that stopped him, forcing him to return to England. Morgan, he said, had abandoned the bet because of the outbreak of war, and had awarded him £4000 for his troubles.

It's a good story "“ but is it true? There is no evidence that Bensley ever actually left England, despite his claims, and even now, his family wonders if the tale was anything more than fancy.
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In 2005, a 91-year-old former solicitor from Devon placed £500 on 6-to-1 odds that he would be dead by the end of the year. Arthur King-Robinson's morbid wager, which was accepted by bookmaker William Hill, was an effort to sidestep a £3000 inheritance tax that his estate would have been liable for should he have died by December 6, 2005. Luckily, King-Robinson didn't die, the death tax was avoided, and the bookmaker took home £500.
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Horatio Bottomley, a Liberal MP who was also a less than honest businessman, had the perfect scheme for fixing a horse race. In 1914, Bottomley bought all six horses running in a particular race in Belgium, then bribed the jockeys to finish in a certain order and placed massive bets on the race. Fool proof, right? Not so much. The racecourse was a seaside track and the day of the race proved exceptionally foggy: Not only could the jockeys not work out who was where, but neither could the judges. Bottomley lost a vast amount of money on the race.
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Before off-track betting was legalized, many of these kinds of weird wagers were made within in the confines of gentlemen's clubs (not those kinds of gentlemen's clubs). Whites, which at more than 300 years old is one of London's oldest such clubs, kept records of colorful wagers made by club members. Some are morbid: In 1817, Whites' ledgers reveal, one member bet 10 guineas that six other Whites patrons would die within a year. Others were a bit whimsical: In 1812, the record shows that one Mr. Talbot bet Sir J. Copley five guineas that "he does not make a bet with him during the next three years." Still others concerned matters of state: A Mr. Bouverie bet Lord Yarmouth £150 that the Duke Clarence, who would become King William IV, would sire no legitimate children in the next two years. And some were just crass: In 1819, "Mr. Raikes bets Mr. Greveill one guinea the Empress Marie Louise is in Paris before Emperor Napoleon is in her person."
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Honorable mention goes to professional gambler Brian Zembic, a Canadian, who in 1998 accepted a $100,000 bet to get and live with breast implants for a year. The weird part? He still has them.
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What's the weirdest thing you've ever bet on?

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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