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10 Things About Detroit That May Surprise You

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Once one of the largest, richest and most prosperous cities in the US, Detroit has fallen on hard times.  But reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.  It remains a city with a talented workforce (it has more engineers per capita than any other city), huge manufacturing capacity, rich history, amazing culture and a downtown that is striving for rejuvenation.  Don't believe me?  Here are ten things you might not know about The Motor City.

1. The Greening of Detroit. Detroit had a peak population of around 1.8 million people. Now, however, the population is just a little over 800,000. The mortgage and automotive crises, coupled with huge rates of unemployment, caused a massive exodus that's left the city with large swathes of unused land. One group, The Greening Of Detroit, is using that land to create inspiration, beautification, teaching opportunities and sustainable sources of food.

In 2002, The Greening created an Empowerment Zone, an intense clean-up and restoration project that restored 1,370 vacant lots in Detroit. They also run an Urban Farm at Romanowski Park, a 26-acre park located in southwest Detroit with a two-acre farm plot, teaching pavilion, playgrounds, orchards and athletic fields. They are one of several organizations with some fantastic ideas on how to revitalize Detroit.

2. Hollywood of the Midwest. Another interesting plan to simulate the downtrodden economy is to entice movie producers to the state. Michigan is currently offering huge tax incentives to bring in the movie business and Detroit's landscape and architecture provide a wide array backdrops, as well as a knowledgeable and dedicated workforce. Movies filmed in Detroit include Transformers, The Island, Dreamgirls, Semi-Pro, Road To Perdition, 8 Mile, Gran Torino and Up In The Air, which was party filmed at the Detroit Metro Airport. In fact, despite the 2008 opening of a brand new, state-of-the-art facility at the airport, Detroit plans to keep the older Berry Terminal for movies and commercials.

3. Roads? Where We're Going, We Need Roads. In 1909, Detroit built the first mile of paved concrete road, just outside of Henry Ford's Model T plant, on Woodward Avenue. Detroit was also the first city to create an urban freeway, the Davison, which opened in 1942. The Davison was slated to take to more than a decade to finish, but the looming threat of WWII sped up its creation, as it was a vital artery to several local plants manufacturing parts for the war. Speaking of WWII...

4. 10. That was the number of automobiles produced by Ford in 1944. The manufacturing capacity of Detroit was almost entirely converted to help create the "Arsenal of Democracy". By 1944, Ford was producing close to 80% of all B-24 Liberator bombers, each of which contained over one million parts held together by hundreds of thousands of rivets. At the end of the war, Ford was producing 540 planes a month. Many pilots would sleep on cots outside Ford's Willow Run facility, waiting for planes to roll off the line.

5. Candy Is Dandy, But Liquor Is Quicker. Prohibition may have been the law of the US from 1920-1933, but our neighbors to the north suffered no such restrictions. In the wake of the 18th amendment, hundreds of distilleries opened in Canada and Detroit became a huge corridor for illegal booze heading into the states. It's estimated that at the height of prohibition, 75% of all illegal alcohol in the US came through Detroit, which was controlled by the infamous and bloody Purple Gang. Their power and influence was so great, notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone brought the Gang into his empire as suppliers for Canadian Whiskey rather than fight a war with them.

6. Can You Breathe Underwater? The Detroit Free Press Marathon holds the distinction of being the only international marathon that begins in the United States. Marathoners cross the Ambassador Bridge into Canada, then return via the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which runs under the Detroit River, meaning the race is also the only marathon with an official underwater mile.

7. Famous Faces. You would recognize a ton of famous celebrities and music groups that call Detroit their home, including Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Allen, David Alan Grier, Christie Brinkley, Elizabeth Berkely, James Lipton, Tim Meadows, Tom Selleck, Insane Clown Posse, Eminem, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Ted Nugent, Marth Reeves, Smokey Robinson, Bob Seger, Sufjan Stevens, The White Stripes, John Sinclair and of course Casey Kasem. Now on with the countdown…

8. Native American Idol. The first recorded mention of Detroit comes from the diary of a French priest. In 1670, while traveling to Sault St. Marie, a pair of missionaries came across a stone idol being worshiped by the natives of the area. One of these priests grabbed an axe, destroyed the idol, dropped the pieces into the Detroit River, then wrote about it in his journal.

9. Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Belgian. The Cadieux Cafe in Detroit is the only place in North America where you can play Feather Bowling, a game created in Flanders, Belgium, in the 13th century. Teams roll wooden balls shaped like wheels of cheese down an alley, attempting to stop them close to a feather at the other end. It can be described as a combination of bocce and curling.

10. Lions and Tigers and Red Wings, Oh My. Despite the historic ineptitude of the Lions, Detroit is still one of the more successful sports cities. In fact, it is one of the only cities to have its baseball, basketball and hockey teams all win titles in the past 30 years. If you include the nearby universities of Michigan in football (although they have had a few rough years) and Tom Izzo's basketball team in E. Lansing, the non-Lions sport success becomes even more impressive.

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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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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