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Binge Drinking Epidemic Among British Women

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It's Friday night and you're a British female between the ages of 14 and 75 "“ what are you going to do? As likely as not, you're going out to get pissed.

According to recent research, women in Britain are big drinkers. As in, wasted before they even get to the bar, dancing on (and falling off) tables, throwing up on Tube tracks, and urinating in doorways. Women in England and Ireland drink more than their European sisters, and more than many in the rest of the world. Although men still consume more units of alcohol than women, the ladies are catching up fast as rates of drinking among women is rising more rapidly than rates of drinking among men. The rates of women dying from alcohol-related diseases has more than doubled since 1991 and liver specialists say that where middle-aged men used to make up the majority of their caseload, women as young as 26 are increasing in number.

Drinking is something of a national sport in the UK, a kind of time-honored tradition that could only spring from the country that invented the G&T. Alcohol has long been part of the fabric of British life "“ witness any book by Evelyn Waugh or PG Wodehouse.

But while characters in books and movies can getaway with multiple martinis before dinner with little ill effect (or, in Bertie Wooster's case, with a brilliant butler to set him to rights), real people can't. And now, Britain is reaping the fruit of a long time love affair with the drink.

In 2007, the Daily Mail ran a special report on the growing problem of binge drinking. Among the more inflammatory headlines included a report about 8-year-old school children showing up to school hungover. More recent surveys have found that British teenagers routinely out-drink most of their European components, with 54 percent of them claiming to binge drink (that's five or more alcoholic beverages in one go).

But what's got folks here concerned isn't just that British teenagers rank fifth among binge drinking teenagers out of 35 European countries, but that binge-drinking teenage girls are inflating their numbers. Teenage girls, the survey suggests, are binge drinking more than teenage boys. Other statistics show that more than 5,000 teenage girls ended up in the hospital after a night of boozing last year alone. That's a relatively big number for a small island.

But it's not all teenage girls out for a night of hilarity and tears "“ middle-aged professional women are more likely to over-drink than any other age and socio-economic group of women, and to do it at home, as well.

Of course, there's also a good dose of hysteria mixed in with these statistics, with newspapers "“ the same ones that follow Lady GaGa's every costume change "“ shrieking headlines about the scourge of lady drinking. Which is why the BBC recently worked up a documentary about lady drinking, featuring the adorable Cherry Healey working her way through what she called the seven ages of drinking, drinking with girls age 14 to grandmothers, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the lady booze phenomenon. (Watch here until Monday.)

It's sad watching "“ but utterly fascinating. The program is littered with horrifying informational tidbits definitely meant to shock and appall: 60 percent of 18-to-24-year-old girls drink just to get wasted; binge drinking among teenage girls is on the rise, whilst its on the decline among teenage boys; alcohol costs the National Health Service £2.7 billion a year in emergency room calls and through things like the booze bus, a mobile command center that deals with a lot of London's drunks. We find this last bit out when Healey spends an evening out with the unit, watching teenage girls wail about wanting their mummy after vomiting violently into a plastic basin.

But these factoids take a backseat to the depressing human drama the program is meant to capture. Healy spends one evening drinking with some underage teenagers, in the bedroom of one girl while her mother is downstairs. "I don't like the taste of it, but I like the effect," says Rio, a 14-year-old binge drinker, taking a pull, through a straw, of course, off a bottle of Bacardi.

"We have no control," her mother says later, adding, "we feel that we're helpless."

Asked what life would be like without booze, Rio replies, "So boring it would be unbelievable."

The show, while not the most objective of journalistic exercises, hits on some of the deepest reasons why women drink. And they're pretty simple, throughout the ages Healey drinks with: Alcohol for women is liquid courage, it's a cure for boredom, a social lubricant, a way to break down that famed "British reserve," a quick shot of relaxation, and a truth serum. But primarily, and perhaps most disturbingly, it's confidence.

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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]