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Strange Geographies: Death in Venice

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If you've got the money, you can live in Venice. If you're a romantic, you can die in Venice. But you cannot be buried in Venice. That rule was adopted in 1807, when Napoleon's inspectors surveyed the sorry state of parish plots scattered across the city and decided that it was unsanitary to bury people in Venice proper, a city where you can't dig more than a few feet without hitting water (or wooden pylons, or sand). Elected as an alternative was the nearby island of San Michele, formerly a prison, which today houses dead Venetians packed heel-to-toe by the hundreds of thousands -- many times the current living population of Venice. Grassy lanes shaded with rows of cypress and a distinct lack of crowds make it one of the most peaceful spots in the lagoon to spend an afternoon; even though it's just one stop from one of Venice's busiest vaporetto (waterbus) hubs, it feels very far from the tourist trail.

Approaching by water from Venice, the island's marvelous walls and gates (above) make it look like some kind of floating fortress. The vaporetto lets you off at a chink in the gate, and you enter to find this Roman-looking semi-circle of mausoleums.

Despite their proud exterior, the first one I peeked into was in a sorry state.

As was this one, although there's something grand about climbing vines -- even wild, unintentional ones.

They dug down a level to build this one, which may have seemed like a good idea at the time -- until it rained. Now a permanent layer of slippery green slime coats the landing.

The cemetery is divided into strictly segregated sections. There's one for Catholics and another for Protestants. There's a section for priests and one for nuns.

There's a section for soldiers and one for sailors.

Gently-curving walls and small chapels separate the sections and prevent visual overload; if you could see straight from one end of the island to the other -- a hundred thousand graves and tombs and mausoleums all at once -- it would make you dizzy.

I went to San Michele expecting to find the whole place in a state of graceful decay, not unlike Venice itself. While that wasn't universally the case, certain humble sections of the cemetery are more tumbledown than others, like this one, where many of the markers are made from wood.

Or here, where wildflowers grow up around leaning stones.

The Italians seem to love putting photographs on their graves.

But my favorites are the faces worn away by time and weather.

There aren't a lot of old graves on San Michele, because only the very wealthy can afford to keep their plots for more than a few decades. Space in these shallow plots is at such a premium that after a certain length of time occupants are dug up and their bones transferred to metal boxes for storage in smaller quarters.

Until about fifty years ago, those who couldn't afford a small annual maintenance fee were disinterred and evicted from San Michele altogether, to the "Island of Bones," Sant' Ariano, though it's now mostly just overgrown mounds of dirt (though it's said you can still find bones if you scrabble around in the soil).

On the far end of the island are newer mausoleums, many of which are really stunning -- architectural marvels unto themselves -- and which no doubt cost a pretty penny.

Nice, right? Sign me up!

Seagulls rule the cemetery. There's always one watching you from some high-altitude perch. This one was screeching at me, and I couldn't figure out why ...

... until I saw this atop a nearby tomb.

There are fresh flowers and well-tended plants everywhere. I expected to find a small army of gardeners, but the only person I saw paying attention to the greenery was this old man -- an army of one.

Here's where he keeps those watering cans.

Nestled in the vines on the wall was a solitary gardener's glove.

Evidence of the work that goes into this place was hiding everywhere.

A broom and a weird mural.

There are lots of fancy people buried here, like Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky. Their graves are well-marked, and are probably the reason any tourists come here at all.

True to form, the architecturally adventurous Italians have made dying in Venice nearly as appealing as living there. If you're in the city and have an afternoon to spare, I'd highly recommend a visit.

Check out all the Strange Geographies columns here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]