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Why Can't You Start a Rival Post Office?

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With the holiday season quickly approaching, many of us are bracing ourselves for the inevitable interminable trips to the post office that come along with mailing cards and gifts. Whenever I’m stuck in the long line waiting, I always wonder, “Why couldn’t someone create a private postal system to compete with this one?”

The short answer: “It would be illegal for a private company to carry normal letters.” Let’s take a look at the question in a bit more depth, though.

What are the Private Express Statutes?

Basically, the Private Express Statutes are a set of laws, some of which date all the way back to 1792, that establish the USPS’ exclusive right to deliver letters in exchange for compensation. From the USPS’ point of view, these laws are necessary to keep private courier services from leeching away business on the most profitable routes and leaving the government to deliver mail on the most expensive routes that usually turn a net loss.

Any loopholes around these rules?

Sure. The USPS explicitly says that it doesn’t mind if you use a private courier to deliver your mail…provided you put the proper USPS postage on the letter in question and cancel the postage in ink. In other words, they’ll magnanimously sell you a stamp and let you cancel it without actually using it for postage.

There are other, more useful exceptions, too. You can ship a letter using a private courier like FedEx if it’s “extremely urgent” or if the rate you pay to send it is at least six times the current price of USPS first class postage. You can also carry (or have one of your employees carry) your own letters to their recipients without running afoul of the Postmaster General.

How do bike messengers stay on the right side of the law, then?

Although the USPS wants to protect its monopoly, it does concede some points to common sense. There’s an exception in the Private Express Statutes that allows for businesses to send “25 or fewer letters carried by special messenger on an infrequent, irregular basis for the sender or addressee.” In other words, bike messengers are in the clear.

So it’s illegal to ship certain types of letters through private couriers. Surely these rules aren’t enforced, right?

Scofflaws beware! The USPS actually enforces these rules from time to time. For example, Equifax learned a terrifying lesson in 1993. Armed USPS inspectors raided the company’s Atlanta headquarters to determine whether or not the letters the company had been sending via FedEx were indeed “extremely urgent” as required by the Private Express Statutes. The letters didn’t pass the test, and Equifax ended up having to pay a $30,000 fine.

Any other mail laws we’re probably breaking?

Yes, if you’ve ever slipped an unstamped leaflet or flyer into a mailbox. Title 18 of the United States Code prohibits the placement of any unstamped “mailable matter” into an approved mailbox regardless of whether or not the mailbox’s owner objects.

In the 1981 decision USPS v. Council of Greenburgh Civic Assns., the Supreme Court ruled that this system was legal and that customers don’t really have a say over what goes into their mailbox, even if they were just dying to get that new Chinese place’s menu. The ruling reads, “In effect, the postal customer, although he pays for the physical components of the 'authorized depository,' agrees to abide by the Postal Service's regulations in exchange for the Postal Service agreeing to deliver and pick up his mail.”

So nobody’s tried to create his own USPS competitor?

They sure have. Political radical and reformer Lysander Spooner did just that in 1844 by opening the American Letter Mail Company. Spooner felt that the postal monopoly was unconstitutional since the Constitution only gave Congress “the power to establish post offices and post roads” without mentioning any sort of exclusivity. Furthermore, Spooner was pretty sure he could beat the USPS on price; he aimed to cut the price of a stamp from 12 cents to a nickel.

Spooner was primarily interesting in making a political point about the government’s anticompetitive behavior, but the American Letter Mail Company had quite a bit of early success. Spooner opened offices in major East Coast cities and used both ships and railroads to deliver letters in a timely, inexpensive fashion. Customers obviously loved the cut-rate prices and faster delivery times, and Spooner quickly became a worthy rival for the USPS.

Of course, the government didn’t make things easier for him. It tried to punish railroad owners who transported Spooner’s messengers, and Spooner even received threats of jail time for circumventing the government’s monopoly. He kept delivering mail, though, and eventually the USPS had to slash its own prices to keep up. The price of a stamp dropped all the way down to a nickel.

Spooner wasn’t finished, though. He lowered his rates again and kept mailing letters. By 1851 Congress finally had to intervene with new laws to protect the postal monopoly and another rate cut, this one down to three cents per stamp. The new measures finally put Spooner out of business, but his upstart postal service had helped reduce the price of stamps by 75 percent. In the meantime, other private carriers had been able to quietly pull in big profits of their own while Spooner had diverted the government’s attention.

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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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