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5 Pairs of Countries That Americans Confuse

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Last Friday, in response to a flurry of social media activity mistakenly identifying the Boston bombing suspects as having a Czech, rather than Chechen, background, the Czech ambassador to the US issued a statement clarifying that "the Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities—the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation."

Nice try, Ambassador Gandalovic, but there are some place names that just sound so similar to us, we will persist in mixing them up no matter how little they have to do with each other and no matter how many times the mistake makes the news. Here are five other pairs of places that people confuse so often their ambassadors don't even shrug at the mistakes anymore. 

1. Australia and Austria

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In 2007 President Bush thanked the Australian premier for visiting Austrian troops in Iraq. But that wasn't just an isolated Bush gaffe. The countries are so often confused that at tourist shops all over Austria you can buy T-shirts that say "No kangaroos in Austria." To be fair, their names are only separated by two little letters, and it's not only Americans that have trouble with this one. At the G20 summit in South Korea in 2010, the world leaders were presented with dolls crafted in their likenesses. Australian PM Julia Gillard's doll was decked out in a traditional Austrian costume.

2. Sweden and Switzerland

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Jessica Alba caught some heat back in 2009 after she told a reporter to "be neutral…like Sweden." Though she defended herself by pointing out that Sweden was neutral during WWII, it brought the issue of Sweden/Switzerland confusion to the fore. The Swedes and Swiss had been complaining for years about the questions they get asked when they reveal where they're from, and they stepped in to helpfully point out the differences: Sweden = Ikea, ABBA, and meatballs; Switzerland = banks, watches, and chocolate.

3. Slovakia and Slovenia

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They both start with "slov" and end with "ia." They both became independent nations in the '90s. They have similar flags. They're easy to confuse. But Slovakia, once part of Czechoslovakia, is up there under Poland, and Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, is down there next to Italy. Americans aren't the only ones who get these mixed up. They've been confused by world leaders, Olympic officials, and the UN. And according to this Slovak tourism site, the "staff of Slovak and Slovenian embassies meet once a month to exchange wrongly-addressed mail!"

4. Uruguay and Paraguay

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Uruguay has Atlantic beaches, Paraguay is landlocked. Uruguay voted to allow same-sex marriage, Paraguay's leading presidential candidate said he would shoot off his own testicles if his son wanted to marry another man. When John Gimlette wrote a book about his travel adventures in Paraguay, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, he probably didn't expect that the publishers' design would put the flag of Uruguay on the spine, but that's how it worked out.

5. Oakland and Auckland

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In this case, it's the cities that are confusing. In 1985, a California college student was trying to get back to Oakland from a vacation in Germany, but ended up on a plane to Auckland, New Zealand. He bought his ticket correctly, but he ended up at a boarding gate for a flight to New Zealand. He heard all the announcements as "Oakland" and responded "yes" every time airline personnel asked if he was going to Auckland. He realized the mistake after the plane took off, and got a free flight back after spending the day in Auckland, which he described as, "really nice."

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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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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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