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4 Russian Travel Tips for Visiting America

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ThinkStock

As an American, you can find volumes of travel books instructing you how to behave when you visit other countries—which seemingly innocent hand gestures are vulgar in Romania, for example, or how close you can stand to a Japanese businessman. But what about when foreigners visit our country?

It’s not easy to find out what the non-English speaking world thinks of us, as it is another unique peculiarity of Americans that most only speak one language. But Google speaks many, even Russian. So with Google’s help, I set out to learn more about “американский этикет,” or, Russia’s take on American etiquette. (Note: We welcome any translation help from Russian-speaking Flossers.)

1. On Giving Gifts to Americans

Short Version: Don’t worry about gifts. It’s not a big deal to Americans and can even make them feel bad. If you do gift, go really Russian, they love that. Also did you know bribery was illegal in America? Be careful of that.

“Gifts: Americans do not expect them. On the contrary, an unexpected gift while conducting business can put an American in an awkward position. Such things for Americans suggest reciprocity."

"If you do gift, it is desirable to bring something purely Russian when you visit the United States. But make it 'purely Russian' for modern America - not nesting dolls and samovar. Instead bring a good book about Moscow or Russian history, art and culture. Americans appreciate a good education and have great respect for cognitive literature.” (Деловой этикет по-американски)

“Business gifts in the U.S. are not acceptable. Moreover, they often cause suspicion. Americans fear that they could be construed as a bribe, and in the United States that is strictly punishable by law.” (Национальные особенности этикета в США)

I’d just like to say, I would love a samovar. And oh, one of those awesome fox fur earflap hats would probably really help grease the wheels of international commerce between our companies.

2. On Talking to American Women

The short version: American women are a little uptight. They might call the cops if you look at them too long. And don’t be gallant, that creeps them out.

“US etiquette prohibits flirting with a woman who is not your girlfriend or wife. If you are not acquainted with a woman, whether she be in a restaurant, on the street, or on the subway, do not look at her legs, etc. Americans could easily call the police on you, even for just ogling her.” (Этикет США)

“Welcome and introductions: men and women tend to shake hands. Mutual kissing and kissing ladies' hands is not accepted. Also, women play a greater role in business. Often they insist to be treated exactly as an equal and not as a lady. In this regard, it is not acceptable to be excessively gallant, and you should avoid personal questions (do not find out whether she is married). (Национальные особенности этикета в США)

It’s weird how one nation’s flirting is another nation’s motivation to use pepper spray.

See Also: 10 Japanese Travel Tips for Visiting America

3. On Socializing With Americans

Short Version: Americans are delicate buttercups by Russian standards, so be gentle. They get all touchy when you show up at their house uninvited and get their feelings hurt just because you hang up on them when you’re done talking. They also do this thing with their legs that is so annoying. Bring them a badminton racket, they go crazy for those. Oh! And when they say, “See you later,” they’re totally lying. And whatever you do, don’t mention the magnetic storm.

“Showing up at a business associate’s home uninvited in the United States is not acceptable. You may be invited to a picnic –if you’ve known each other for several years and are social outside the office. As a rule, the invitation will be only on a weekend, and you don’t have to prepare for something extravagant. Everything is the same as ours, only with far less booze. Bring something sporty - ball, badminton, Americans are certainly fervent fans of these things.” (Деловой этикет по-американски)

"Americans generally do not like long intros and prefer to go directly to the subject matter, especially if it's a phone conversation. In Russia we talk about general topics before moving on to the reason for the call. Conversely, Americans are often surprised by the Russian habit of quickly breaking off a conversation and hanging up. Phone etiquette in America usually involves the gradual end of the conversation, confirmation agreements and standard closing remarks. By the way, 'see you later' should not be taken literally. That is a courtesy, and no more.

"Russian conversational patterns often sound harsh to Americans. Statements such as, 'You’re wrong,' can be offensive. This can be interpreted as 'You are telling lies!' Therefore it is better to say, 'I do not think I can agree with this.'" (Американский речевой этикет)

“When Americans are talking, they might put their foot on a nearby chair, or even a table. They might cross their legs so that one foot rests on the opposite knee. In American culture, it is considered an acceptable norm, but often causes irritation in other countries.” (Национальные особенности этикета в США)

 “You should not discuss their health unless you are visiting a friend in the hospital. What seems caring can be regarded as an invasion of privacy, lack of tact. You have to have some justification to show interest in their health. Do not ask the effect of a magnetic storm (not many Americans know what that is) on their well-being.”
(Американский речевой этикет)

See Also: 11 French Travel Tips for Visiting America

4. On American Optimism

Short Version: These people do not stop smiling. Also, they don’t want to hear your problems because it interrupts their smiling. “Surviving” makes you a hero over there. Here it just means you were unlucky, but not unlucky enough to have died.  

“Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation. Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, 'Are you all right?' Russians will inquire: 'Are you ill?' We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we 'aren’t sick,' they 'stay well.'  We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda."  (Американский речевой этикет)

“US etiquette requires that you smile in each and every situation. If you want to travel to America, be prepared to give a smile not only to friends and acquaintances, but also to all passers-by, in shops, to the staff at the hotel, police on the streets, etc.

"US etiquette also forbids lamenting the troubles of life, or sharing your problems with others. Sharing in this country can only be positive emotions—sorrows and frustrations are impermissible. In the US you only complain to acquaintances in the most extreme cases. Serious problems are for close friends and relatives only.

"However, it would be wrong to believe that the Americans with their smiles only create the illusion of well-being and that their smiles are stretched with false joy. This is not so. Americans: they are a nation that truly feels happy. These people get used to smiling from the cradle onwards, so they do not pretend to be cheerful. The desire for a successful happy life is inculcated from childhood.” (Этикет США)

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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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