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Is Any All-Female House Really Considered a Brothel?

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© Image Source/Corbis

In just a few weeks, most college kids will head back to school. Inevitably, some roommate/lab partner/friend/professor/tour guide/lacrosse team mascot is going to tell one of those kids about how, according to “an old law still on the books,” any house with more than a certain number of female residents constitutes a brothel.

If you happen to be a college kid who hears this story this fall, or used to be a college kid who heard it years ago, I have some news for you: the brothel law thing is bunk. Don’t feel bad, though. This story has been circulating around the United States for decades and may well be the most widespread and persistent piece of campus folklore in the country.

The story about brothel laws has been recorded since the 1960s—a decade that saw a huge uptick in the number of women attending college—and may even be older than that. No one seems to know at which school the story started. Every college's version differs in the details. The number of women needed to make a brothel varies from telling to telling. (After a quick, unscientific survey, four and six seem to be the most common numbers).

The story is often told to explain the absence of sorority houses on certain campuses. But for as many times as the tale is told, these laws have never actually been documented anywhere. In 1998, a group of eight Tulane University students searched through municipal and state law books going as far back as the 1800s and came up empty. I did a little digging of my own closer to home; I couldn’t find any laws in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or the municipalities where I went to school.

Housing Laws That Do Exist

How did this myth start? It’s possible that too much binge drinking might have led to the jumbling of zoning laws and morality-motivated “blue laws” in the mind of some mid-century proto-Bro. Certain municipalities do actually have zoning laws that prohibit more than a specified number of people, male or female, from living together. Often, this is to keep groups of possibly rowdy young people from overrunning quiet, mostly family-occupied neighborhoods.

In State College borough, where almost everyone in my family except me went to Penn State, houses in residential zones can’t have more than three unrelated people occupying them. This prevents student housing from overrunning family housing and driving down property values in neighborhoods. Students who find a house in a commercial zone aren’t subject to the same occupation rules.

Many states also have blue laws that enforce certain religious standards, usually the observance of Sunday as a day of worship or rest. These laws are the reason why you can’t buy liquor most places on a Sunday in Pennsylvania or go to a horse race on Sunday in certain towns in Illinois.

Even in these cases, though, households that violate the zoning codes aren’t considered brothels. There are anti-brothel laws in some places in America, but houses of prostitution earn that designation by having prostitution going on inside them, not by having a certain number of residents with lady parts.

Here’s one more twist to the myth: Even in municipalities that limit the number of unrelated persons in the same dwelling, the laws often provide exceptions for buildings meant for communal living, like YMCAs, convents and fraternity/sorority houses.

Have you heard about brothel laws at school? What other campus folklore have you always wondered about?

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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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