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4 Other Bailouts in American History

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With all the money being thrown at banks, insurance companies, and car builders, many Americans have soured on the idea of bailouts. However, bailouts themselves are not always bad things. Let's look back at a few other occasions we threw money at problems.

1. Bailing Out the Boys in Blue: The Civil War Veterans Pension Program

The Civil War was the most destructive conflict in U.S. history. Millions of men returned from war injured or permanently disabled. What started as a disability fund for Union soldiers injured in the war became, by the end of the 19th century, a pension system for all veterans (other than Confederate veterans, that is) in their old age. In 1894, with the still relatively small scope of government spending and the huge amount of qualified veterans and widows, the $165 million spent in Civil War pensions was more than one third of all federal spending. The widow payouts were so generous that older vets were able to attract young wives looking for financial support. This practice was so prevalent that there were widows collecting these pensions up until (at least) 1999!

2. A Robber Baron Bails Out Wall Street

The Panic of 1907 left American banks on shaky ground and the stock market in a free fall. At the time, there were no central banks in place, so the federal government had no means of bailing out businesses or injecting cash into the economy. It just stood by, idly waiting for a hero to save the day. Amazingly, one did."¨"¨ James Pierpont Morgan, with his frightening eyebrows and permanent scowl, almost single-handedly rescued the American economy. He propped up many of the failing banks in New York by twisting the arms of other financiers to make them cough up some capital, and he assuaged investors' fears by backing up the market with his own vast cash reserves. Before long, Wall Street was on the mend."¨"¨

3. America Bails Out Europe: The Marshall Plan

Europe was a wreck after WWII. Entire cities had been leveled, communities destroyed, and spirits crushed. With the looming specter of Soviet communism and the potential for radical movements to step in where legitimate governments had failed, throwing a little U.S. cheddar at the problem didn't sound like such a bad idea. In fact, it turned out to be a swell idea for Europeans and Americans alike, for while money flowed into war-torn countries like Germany, France, and the Netherlands, much of that money returned to American pockets as U.S. exports flowed out in record numbers to the rebuilding nations. Plus, the plan's primary architect, General George Marshall, got a Nobel Peace Prize out of the deal.

4. Bailing Out the Big Apple

In the early "˜70s, New York City was basically bankrupt. After years of pleading with the Federal government, NYC got its wish in the form of the New York City Seasonal Financing Act. Guaranteeing over $2 billion in loans, the act wasn't the only thing that saved the city. Many of the city's workers also pitched in, with municipal and teacher's pension plans throwing in a couple billion of their own. When it all came out, everyone, including the fed, got their money back plus interest, and now New York no longer has that creepy French Connection feel to its streets.

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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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