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Towns With Themes (And a Crazy Marlon Jackson Rumor)

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Linda Rodriguez recently moved to England, and she posts about happenings in her new country a few times each week. Her column needs a name. "A Broad Abroad" sounds demeaning and Sarah Lyall just published a book called "The Anglo Files." Got any other ideas? If Linda picks yours, you win a mental_floss t-shirt. So get brainstorming.

Sir Terry Pratchett may not be exactly a household name in cities in the US, but he certainly is in households in the small Somerset town of Wincanton.


That's because Wincanton is currently modeling itself after a town in Pratchett's most famous creation, the fictional universe of Discworld "“ a world that's pancake flat, resting on the back of four elephants, which are standing on a giant turtle. Discworld and the adventures of its inhabitants, who include wizards, witches, trolls, dwarves, the Grim Reaper, the Hogfather (he's like Santa Claus) and a few humans, have been the subject nearly 40 books, all piss-takes of science-fiction and fantasy tropes, crime novels, martial arts, corporate crime, and The Da Vinci Code, among many other topics. They've been incredibly successful "“ Pratchett has sold more than 55 million Discworld books worldwide, netting himself a loyal following and a knighthood for services to literature to boot.

And now, Pratchett's creation is bleeding out into real life.

In 2002, Wincanton twinned itself to Ankh-Morpork, a metropolitan city based squarely in the fantastic Discworld, making it the first city in the world to twin itself to a fictional town. Since then, tourism to the small, previously nondescript town has exploded, with Discworld fans flocking to the Discworld Emporium, a themed store on the Main Street, to fancy dress balls, festivals and masquerades.

Wincanton has also recently named two streets after street names in the book series, with Pratchett, costumed residents and hordes of fans on hand for the dedication ceremony. The streets, Peach Pie Street and Treacle Mine Road, are located in a subdivision neighborhood of amusingly named Wimpey Homes, currently under construction and slated for completion in July. Two families have already promised to buy homes on the streets.

Wincanton may be the first town to twin with a fictional city, but it's certainly not the first town to take a theme and just run with it for the sake of tourism. Here are a few others:

Scotland: Ab FAB

Sadly, no, these three Scottish theme towns in the Dumfries and Galloway region are not dedicated to bringing the sordid, drunken world of Absolutely Fabulous to wondrous mid-"˜90s life. But Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbright and Wigtown are, respectively, designated Food, Arts, and Book towns. Get it? The towns, all small and rural, are reinventing themselves for the tourist trade: Castle Douglas is home to more than 50 food specialty shops and restaurants; Kirkcudbright has been an artist's commune since the 1800s; and Wigtown hosts an annual Book Town Literary Festival.

Pacific Northwest: Partying like its 1899

Everybody likes cowboys, right? Well, a few towns in the US and Canada sure hope so "“ especially since they've remade themselves into pioneer towns as part of a bid to attract tourism. In Washington, there's sleepy Winthrop, which was remade in 1969 as an homage to Western pioneer towns, and is now all weathered wood storefronts, hitching posts, late 19th century frontier town architecture, and rough-cut boardwalks. Up in British Columbia, there's Barkerville, a gold-rush town where costumed residents take you on guided tours, real stagecoaches still run, and you can go real old school in a schoolhouse from 1870. And in Oregon, there's Jacksonville, a National Historic Landmark preserving its pioneer past through architecture, costumed tours, and shopping.

Ironbridge: The Revolution Continues

Ironbridge, or the "Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution" as it bills itself, is a small town in the West Midlands of England that has never really moved past the Industrial Revolution. Home to the Ironbridge, a massive testament to the 19th century age of steam and iron, the town has worked hard to maintain its Victorian roots. Though a small town and valley, it has no less than 10 museums dedicated to Industrial Revolution history, as well as streets of Victorian era storefronts and shops, historical home tours, and, of course, the requisite costumed tours.

And lastly, bad taste

And finally, on the subject of themes "“ here's some news that just seems so weird, so wrong, and so disrespectful. Marlon Jackson, brother of Michael, LaToya, and Janet and former member of the Jackson Five, seems to be upholding the Jackson Family tradition of bad ideas: He's reportedly involved in plans to open a "slavery theme park" in Badagry, Nigeria, an historic port city that had been the point of departure for thousands of Africans leaving their country in chains as slaves. In addition to a replica of a slave ship, the Badagry Historical Resort Development project is also slated to have golf courses, casinos, and shops, and to house Jackson's collection of Jackson Five memorabilia.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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