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25 Things You Might Not Have Known About New York City

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There’s more to the Big Apple than Lady Liberty and Central Park. Here are some tidbits you might not have known.

1. New York City may be a concrete jungle, but there’s more green space than you think. About 29,000 acres—or 14 percent of the city—is parkland.

2. The city also boasts 14 miles of beaches.

3. In case you were wondering, it’s perfectly legal to walk around NYC topless.

4. In the early 19th century, New York’s sanitation system largely consisted of pigs roaming the streets eating trash.

5. Why are NYC’s cabs yellow? Because back in 1907, a car salesman suggested yellow was the easiest color to spot from a distance.

6. New York's Federal Reserve Bank vault is the world's largest depository for monetary gold.

7. In 2011, tourists pumped about $31 billion into the city’s economy.

8. In 2003, a man was arrested for trying to recreate the Garden of Eden in his Harlem apartment. He had “collected” a live alligator and a 400-pound tiger.

9. When Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, he didn’t do it once—he walked between the buildings eight times! During his feat he was 1368 feet above the ground.

10. Manhattan means “island of the hills” in Lenape.

11. When Central Park was being built, more gunpowder was required to clear the area than was used during the Battle of Gettysburg.

12. Today, nearly 40 percent of New Yorkers are born outside of the U.S.

13. The city is one of the most linguistically diverse places on the planet—over 800 languages are spoken there!

14. It was once suggested that NYC be renamed Brimaquonx—a portmanteau combining all five borough names.

15. When the Brooklyn Bridge was built, New Yorkers were afraid it would collapse. To calm locals down, P.T. Barnum safely led 21 elephants across the bridge.

16. Brooklyn was the site of the Battle of Long Island, one of the heaviest defeats for the United States during the Revolutionary War.

17. In 1625, Peter Minuit bought the southern tip of Manhattan for less than $1000 from Native Americans. Rent in Manhattan has never been cheaper.

18. If you ate at a new restaurant every day for 12 years, you still wouldn’t have visited all of New York’s eateries.

19. Washington Square Park might be known as the center of NYU’s campus, but it was originally a graveyard for yellow fever victims and a site for public executions.

20. Between 1980 and 2000, a reported 2000 fire hydrants in Manhattan did not work. That didn’t stop the city from handing out parking tickets to anyone idling in front of one.

21. The Bronx was founded by Jonas Bronck in 1636—as farmland.

22. The performers you hear on the subway? They have to audition each year if they want to be officially recognized by the MTA.

23. With 34 lines and 468 stations, the city’s subway track is longer than the New York State thruway by over one hundred miles!

24. Spectators at the Times Square ball drop leave behind almost 50 tons of trash.

25. If Brooklyn were its own city, it would be the fourth-most populous in the country.

Now that you're a New York City expert, sign up for the Great Urban Race on May 17, 2014 for the smartest, most active way to test your knowledge!

All images courtesy of Thinkstock

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]