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4 Coin Flips That Changed History

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Rock-paper-scissors aside, flipping a coin has become the ultimate unbiased decision maker. Calling it in the air often settles friendly disputes over who gets the last slice of pizza or whether to go to the movies or bowling on Friday night. In honor of Flip a Coin Day (today!), here are four big decisions that came down to a simple question: Heads or tails?

1. A Coin Toss Named Portland, Oregon

The two New England natives who founded Portland—called The Clearing at the time—both vied for the bragging rights of naming the 640-acre locale after their respective hometowns. Pioneers Asa Lovejoy (of Boston) and Francis Pettygrove (hailing from Portland, Maine) split the site’s land claim, and settled the decision on a coin toss.

Pettygrove won the best two-out-of-three coin toss in the parlor of the Francis Ermatinger House in Oregon City and the rest is history. Portland was incorporated in 1849, and the copper one-cent piece, minted in 1835 and now dubbed the Portland Penny, is on display at the Oregon Historical Society Museum.

2. A Coin Toss Decided the First Flight

Wilbur Wright won the chance to make history when he won a coin toss against brother Orville in their camp at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, in 1903. Wilbur bested his brother in the coin toss for the first crack at flying on December 14, but in a twist of fate, Wilbur stalled the flyer in his first attempt, diving the flyer into the sand.

Three days later, after repairs, Orville was the first to get the contraption airborne at 10:30 on December 17, 1903. Wilbur, who won the coin toss fair and square, was immortalized in a photograph showing him running alongside the plane, very much grounded.

3. A Coin Toss Sealed Ritchie Valens’ Fate 

The blockbuster Winter Dance Party Tour (headliners: rock trailblazers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson) stopped at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, a day before the music died. Holly chartered a plane for the tour’s next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota, after his tour bus was plagued with mechanical snafus. Richardson, suffering from the flu, convinced Holly band member Waylon Jennings to give up his seat, freeing up one more spot on the flight.

Tommy Allsup, a guitarist in Holly’s band, flipped a coin with Valens for the last seat, and lost the spot to the young Latin star. On February 3, 1959, the flight crashed into a cornfield after a one-two punch of piloting mistakes and poor weather conditions on a day Don McLean would remember as The Day the Music Died.

4. A Coin Toss Decided Secretariat’s Owner

The real story behind Secretariat starts in 1969, four years before the horse galloped its way to the Triple Crown. Penny Chenery of Meadow Stable and Ogden Phipps of Wheatley Stable flipped a coin for first pick of two foals sired by prominent racehorse Bold Ruler. Phipps won and picked a filly born from Bold Ruler and a mare named Hasty Matelda.

That left Chenery with the yet-unborn foal of Bold Ruler and Something Royal—a colt that would be named Secretariat at two years old, win the Triple Crown at three, and have a heart nearly four times the size of a normal horse. Secretariat’s performance at the Belmont Stakes ranks second on a list of the top 100 greatest individual sports performances ever, with only Wilt Chamberlain hitting the century mark surpassing it.

This post originally appeared last year.

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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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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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