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11 Surprising Pairs of Sister Cities

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As you’re constantly reminded every holiday, you can’t choose your siblings—unless you’re a municipality. Then you can seek out a sister city (or “twin town,” as they’re called in Europe) that won’t steal food off your plate or tell you you’re adopted. One that really gets you. There are thousands of such partnerships between cities, towns, and counties all over the world, nowadays mostly to encourage cultural exchange and foster “mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation,” according to the Sister Cities International Web site. Here are some of the more unexpected match-ups out there.

1. Paderborn, Germany / Le Mans, France

Unusual not so much for its nature as for its longevity, the twinning of Le Mans and Paderborn is considered the oldest city partnership in the world, dating to the 9th century. The 4th-century bishop and patron saint of Paderborn, St. Liborius, was a Le Mans native, and in 836 his remains were carried from his hometown to Paderborn in a ceremonial procession over a distance of more than 800 kilometers. A friendship was born between the two locales that survives to this day, and they signed an official sister-city agreement in 1967.

2. Mbabane, Swaziland / Fort Worth, Texas

One is the capital of a tiny mountain kingdom ruled by an absolute monarch. The other holds the world’s largest indoor rodeo, in a vast state ruled by Rick Perry. What could they have in common except cattle raising (and barbecue)? Fort Worth already had six sister cities and wanted to add one in Africa; its search committee settled on Mbabane in 2004, in part because “it was a very traditional African country, with an old-world culture,” explains Mae Ferguson, the president and CEO of Fort Worth Sister Cities. The organization has built a health clinic in Mbabane with a grant from the Gates Foundation and sends a group to Swaziland every summer to work on other humanitarian-assistance projects and bask in the country’s laid-back, friendly vibe.

3. Rapid City, South Dakota / Nikko City, Japan

The Western Village amusement park near Imaichi, Japan, a Wild West–themed attraction complete with a shooting gallery and an animatronic John Wayne, has been shuttered since 2007. But it was still going strong in the early ‘90s, when the owner, Oominami Kenichi (apparently quite the Americana buff), saw Dances with Wolves and was moved to travel to the site of its filming—near Rapid City, South Dakota. The partnership, launched in 1994, continued after Imaichi was incorporated into Nikko City in 2006, and the two cities celebrate their sisterhood by organizing exchange trips for kids and adults.  

4. Mascara, Algeria / Elkader, Iowa

When Timothy Davis helped establish a small community in northeast Iowa in 1846, he named it for Emir Abd al-Qādir, an Algerian military leader and statesman admired worldwide for his 1830 campaign to liberate his country from French colonialism. Davis Americanized al-Qādir’s family name to become “Elkader,” and thus the town was christened. More than a century later, an employee of the American embassy in Algiers discovered the connection, paid a visit to Iowa, and forged the bonds between Elkader and its namesake’s hometown of Mascara. Although travel to Algeria has occasionally been restricted during periods of social unrest, Elkader’s sister-city representatives continue to entertain visiting Algerian ambassadors, scholars, and artists—the town even has an Algerian-American restaurant

5. Dull, Scotland / Boring, Oregon

In 2012, the teeny Scottish hamlet of Dull found an obvious soulmate in the northern Oregon town of Boring. They teamed up after a resident of Aberfeldy, not far from Dull, passed through Boring on a U.S. cycling tour and saw a natural opportunity to promote tourism. Named after an early settler and Civil War vet, Boring has no grocery stores or movie theaters but takes a lighthearted approach to its identity, describing itself as “an exciting place to call home.” The two locales declared August 9 to be Boring & Dull Day, which the Oregon half of the partnership celebrated this year with an ice cream social and bagpipe performance. Dull has reported a few more tourists stopping by, and a new restaurant and a brewery have opened up in Boring – perhaps signifying, ironically, that things are getting a little more interesting in both places. Not surprisingly, the community of Bland Shire in New South Wales, Australia, is now hoping to join in on the tedium.

6. Horseheads, New York / Nakagawa, Japan

Lots of cities find sisters through a shared name (Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo, Spain, for instance); some are more creative than others. A Japanese man from the town of Bato-machi, while traveling to the States on business, was looking at a U.S. map and noticed the small village of Horseheads in central New York. He excitedly reported his find to the local government in his hometown: bato literally means “horse head” in Japanese. The town authorities in Japan corresponded with those in New York, and on little more than an accident of translation, the sisters were united. Bato-machi became part of Nakagawa in 2005, but the larger city carries on the relationship, sending a batch of guests to Horseheads each year to experience maple syruping and other local amusements, and receiving a group of Horseheads residents in return.

7. Olney, U.K. / Liberal, Kansas

The link between Liberal and Olney was formed over pancakes and a healthy sense of competition. Since 1445, Olney has put on an annual race on the Tuesday before Lent, also known as Pancake Day; participants—all women—are required to wear a headscarf and carry a frying pan as they run the 380 meters from the town’s marketplace to the Church of St. Peter and Paul. In 1950, the Liberal Jaycees Club president, R.J. Leete, saw a photo from a magazine article about the Olney race and decided to issue a challenge: our women against yours. Today, each town holds its own race every Pancake Day, with the runners vying for the best time on both sides of the Atlantic. In Liberal, the event has expanded into a four-day-long series of festivities, including pancake eating and flipping contests.

8. Walt Disney World / Swindon, U.K.

It’s lonely at the top of family entertainment and relentless merchandising, so in 2009, Mickey Mouse went to the U.K. in search of a sister. Disney World sponsored a contest to find the British city that would best complement its magical might, and surprised everyone with the winner: Swindon, an uninspiring railway town west of London, called “the Peoria of England” by the Orlando Sentinel and a “depressing concrete metropolis” by the Daily Mail. Swindon’s primary booster was Rebecca Warren, who created a promotional video and a poem extolling her city’s virtues. Warren and the mayor were flown to Florida to witness the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at Epcot, and various Disney-related activities were put on across the pond. The Mail, unwilling to join in on the fun, drily summarized the newfound partnership: “One is a magical place where dreams come true. The other, is Swindon.”

9. Decatur, Georgia / Boussé, Burkina Faso

The connection between the Atlanta suburb of Decatur and Boussé, a village in one of the poorest countries in West Africa, began in the late 1980s as the result of a hands-on interest in Burkina Faso as a whole. A team of Decatur locals and University of Georgia students had begun work in the country to eradicate the guinea worm, a dangerous waterborne parasite, and produce a drought-resistant species of corn. Upon their return, they convinced the mayor to set up a volunteer committee and begin facilitating a sister-city relationship, one that spread beyond developmental aid into a cultural exchange. For the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Decatur played host to 35 Burkinabe (that’s what you call them!) athletes, and was treated to the performance of a traditional fertility dance in the town square, an event chronicled with shock and awe by Roy Blount, Jr. in Sports Illustrated. After losing a few key members, however, the sister-city committee entered a period of inactivity and has yet to be fully revived.

10. Boulder, Colorado / Yateras, Cuba

Even in famously liberal Boulder, it isn’t easy to set up a lively exchange program with a partner in Castro’s Cuba. In 2000, Spenser Havlick was teaching through Semester at Sea, a program that allows students to study while traveling the world by ship. His charges, displaying the kind of pluck unique to college students, expressed a desire to meet with Fidel Castro in order to attempt problem solving through discussion. Though the idea first struck him as “hare-brained,” Havlick relented and the students wrote a letter to Castro, who agreed to meet all 800 of them for a four-hour Q & A about the role of youth in working for peace. Havlick, then a member of the Boulder City Council, called upon his fellow council members to pursue a more formal relationship, and in 2002, Boulder joined up with Yateras, in Guantánamo Province. It took nine months for the Boulder­–Cuba Sister City Organization to obtain a license to arrange travel to Cuba, but the group has now led 14 trips there, welcomed visiting Cuban artists, and raised money for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The city council was less enthused recently about an effort toward another partnership, with the city of Nablus in the West Bank; the proposal was rejected amid much controversy in June of this year.

11. Wincanton, U.K. / Ankh-Morpork

There aren’t too many rules governing who can enter into sister-city agreements, but the town of Wincanton in Somerset, England, raised a bit of a stir after forming one with a place that isn’t real. In 2002, the mayor of Wincanton signed a deed of twinning with Ankh-Morpork, a fictional city from author Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The U.K. government squashed residents’ plans to advertise their new sister on official signs, arguing that twin towns had to actually exist. But the setback hasn’t stopped Wincanton from setting up an Ankh-Morpork consulate, borrowing street names like Peach Pie Street and Treacle Mine Road from Pratchett’s mythical creation, and selling fan gear through the Discworld Emporium. An ambassadorial visit to Ankh-Morpork has yet to be organized. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.