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5 Towns That Had to Change Their Names

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many towns have undergone name changes at some point in their history. Usually it's because the land the town is on has come under new rule, or has outgrown its old designation. Because of the military overseeing westward expansion, there are scores of towns in the U.S. that used to be named “Fort __,” and for centuries most of Europe bore Roman names in honor of their conquerors. But some towns have had more unique reasons for changing their names. Scandal, shame, confusion, or just because the name sounds wrong can all be reasons to spur a community toward a new name. Here are five examples of towns that felt it necessary to present a fresh identity to the world.

1. Berlin, Ontario, Canada, became Kitchener

A lot of German immigrants settled in Southern Ontario in the 19th century, and the town of Berlin was named as homage to their motherland. Then the motherland started bombing allies of their current homeland. That, combined with the large population of pacifist Mennonites in Berlin, spelled trouble for the town. All the pacifists meant that men from Berlin weren’t signing up for the war effort, and other towns began to look at the heavily German populated Berlin with suspicion.

Soon there was a referendum (not supported by the majority) to change the name of the town. Citizens were given many options of new names, but there was no space on the ballot to keep Berlin “Berlin.” Anyone who supported the status quo was, according to National Archives of Canada, “immediately perceived, by those who wanted change, as being unpatriotic and sympathizers with the enemy.”

Violence, riots, and intimidation followed. Only 892 people out of a population of 15,000 voted on the referendum, and only 346 votes in favor were enough to change Berlin to Kitchener, named after Britain’s Minister of War. A petition with 2000 signatures was not enough to stop the change.

2. Pile-Of-Bones, Saskatchewan, Canada became Regina

Today, Regina is a city 200,000 people strong. In the 1880s, it was barren grassland frequented only by buffalo and the Cree Indians who hunted them. The old adage that Indians used all parts of the buffalo appears to have been true, except for the bones. These they piled about 2 meters high and 12 meters in diameter, in hope that the buffalo would return to visit the bones. The first settlers and trappers kept the obvious name.

Then, in 1882, the wife of Canada’s governor general, Princess Louise, suggested they change the name to honor her own mother, Queen Victoria. Regina is Latin for “Queen,” and all female monarchs sign their name using it. Thus Saskatchewan was elevated out of the boneyard to royal heights.

3. Wineville, California became Mira Loma

Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie made a movie called Changeling, about a mother who is sure the kidnapped son returned to her is not actually her boy. It was based on true events, and those events are why the town of Wineville, California has been called Mira Loma for the last 80 years. The real-life kidnapped boy, Walter Collins, was likely murdered in Wineville, along with at least three other boys, by Gordon Stewart Northcott. The case became known as The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, as that is the area of Northcott’s ranch where the partial remains of his victims were uncovered. Northcott was hanged in 1930, and the town sought to escape its appalling notoriety by changing its name in 1931.

4. Staines, Surrey, became Staines-Upon-Thames

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Americans have come to loathe or love Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat or Bruno. In his native UK, he was first known as the character Ali G, an obnoxious wanna-be white boy British rapper. Part of Ali G’s background is that he grew up in the mean ghettos of Staines (in actuality a lovely little middle-class town in Surrey). His fame was such in the UK that the people of Staines didn’t appreciate being associated with his image, and changed their name to the more elegant Staines-upon-Thames—partly to distance themselves from Ali G’s obnoxious antics, and partly to advertise their proximity to the river Thames to encourage tourism. Says town Councilor Colin Davis describing the change, "I regard Ali G as someone who put Staines on the map, we're just telling people where it is."

5. Gay Head, Massachusetts, became Aquinnah

On the western edge of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, there is an outcropping of craggy, brightly tinted rock. The white settlers of the 1600s wrote of them as the “gaily colored cliffs,” and the name soon stuck to the settlement that grew near them. The town of Gay Head was born. It was laid to rest 400 years later, when the town of Gay Head successfully voted to change its name to Aquinnah in 1997. As many of the town’s residents are in some way related to the original holders of the land, the Wampanoag tribe, the name change was meant to reflect its Native American heritage.

Although many people might hear of this change and think, “Well yeah, no wonder. That name makes me think of a sex act,” the people behind the name change want the world to know their decision had nothing to do with homosexual connotations. Said the tribesman who started the petition in 1991, Carl Widdiss, "I guess it's simple. An Indian place should have an Indian name."

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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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