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5 Out-of-Alphabetical-Order Nations of the UN

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When you're a club with 193 members, as the United Nations is, it can be hard to keep things fair for everybody. When the situation calls for nations to be arranged in some kind of order, who gets to be first? Which ones get to sit next to each other? For most of these situations, the UN relies on that old standard of impartial organization: alphabetical order. Seating in the General Assembly hall is determined by alphabetical ordering of each country's English name (each year the starting point is rotated), as is the ordering of the flag display outside the headquarters in New York. But some nations don't show up where you'd expect them to.

1. North Korea, after the Czech Republic

North Korea doesn't show up in the n's or the k's, but at the beginning of the d's. It is alphabetized by its official name, "Democratic People's Republic of Korea." Not every country gets alphabetized this way—the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is with the v's and the Plurinational State of Bolivia is with the b's.

2. South Korea, after Qatar

South Korea also gets alphabetized by its official name, "Republic of Korea." South Africa and the newly independent South Sudan, however, are alphabetized by "South," though the official names of the countries are "Republic of South Africa" and "Republic of South Sudan."

3. Macedonia, after Thailand

When Macedonia declared independence in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, a conflict with Greece broke out about its name. Greece has a region called Macedonia and a historical attachment to the ancient kingdom of Macedon, and it objected to the use of the name by its Slavic neighbors to the north. The two countries have been in talks over the naming issue since 1995, and until they work it out, the country will be officially referred to as "The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," making it a very rare thing indeed: a title alphabetized by "The."

4. Tanzania, after the United Kingdom

In 1964, when the East African states of Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined together to form one nation, they joined their names as well, creating Tanzania. Its official name, "United Republic of Tanzania," emphasizes that joining, and gives it its alphabetical ordering among the other "united" entities.

5. Moldova, after South Korea

That is, after Republic of Korea. Though the breakup of the Soviet republics created many countries that are officially "Republic of" but are alphabetized without that part (Republic of Kazakhstan, Republic of Belarus, Republic of Azerbaijan), Moldova is ordered with the r's under "Republic of Moldova."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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