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5 Modern Banking Services You Might Take for Granted

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Although banks aren't the most beloved institutions out there, there's a ton of useful stuff we can do with a modern bank. Many people around the world are "unbanked," meaning they don't have a bank account—and that means they miss out on all sorts of conveniences that we, the banked, often take for granted.

In South Asia, 78 percent of working adults are unbanked; in sub-Saharan Africa the number is 88 percent. Here in the United States, an estimated 1 in 12 households is unbanked. Here's a look at what the unbanked are missing out on.

1. Direct Deposit

Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Many working adults never actually see a "paycheck" per se; instead, the funds are automatically deposited in their bank accounts on payday. Direct deposit is used both for paychecks and for government assistance programs, so money goes directly into the account, bypassing the physical check stage.

Direct deposit has two obvious benefits: because it's automatic, you don't have to "do" anything to get the money, and there is no physical paycheck to lose on the way to the bank. There are other benefits, though—if you don't have a bank, you likely take your paycheck to a check-cashing service, which can take a cut ranging from 2.5% to 10% of your income. Also, once you have a wad of cash in your pocket, that cash is vulnerable to theft.

In Afghanistan, where 95% of the population is unbanked (!), employers are experimenting with mobile payments to deliver paychecks, as a way to introduce the benefits of banking to working adults. A pilot program in Kabul is delivering mobile payments to 500 teachers, which saves them the hassle of standing in line at a bank—and gives them a mobile bank account as part of the deal. (This is one of our 6 Ways Cell Phones Are Changing the World.)

In addition to direct deposit, mobile deposit services are becoming popular. With a mobile phone and an app from the bank, you can deposit checks from anywhere, saving you the hassle and risk of bringing checks to the bank, mailing them, or feeding them into an ATM.

2. Access to ATMs

Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

ATMs are a tremendous privilege, but they're so commonplace now that it's easy to overlook their value. ATMs allow the user to access cash at (or near) the point of purchase, rather than carrying cash on you at all times. If you keep your money in the relative safety of a bank (rather than under your mattress), withdrawing a few bucks to buy dinner is a convenient way to access your money when and where you want it. This reduces the danger of theft.

ATMs also increasingly provide banking services like deposits and money transfers in addition to simple cash withdrawal. When an Automated Teller Machine can do the majority of what a human teller at a bank could do—and that ATM is available at the convenience store near where you live or work—that's a huge convenience. Simply cutting out trips to the bank saves time and money.

3. Access to Credit Cards

While credit cards can be problematic, if used properly they're an extremely useful tool—and potentially a way to bridge the gap between one paycheck and the next. If you don't have access to a credit card but need immediate access to cash, the main alternative in the U.S. is a payday loan. These loans often carry absurdly high fees. The New York Department of Financial Services explains, "The annual percentage rates on payday loans are extremely high, typically around 400% or higher." While credit card interest is often painfully high, it's not "typically 400%."

Credit cards also have the benefit of fraud protection mandated by federal law, at least in the United States. Generally, you're liable for a maximum of $50 if your credit card is used for fraud. (Debit cards differ; CNN reported, "if a fraudster uses your debit card, you could be liable for $500 or more, depending on how quickly you report it.")

4. Online Bill Payment

Image courtesy of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In the absence of online bill-payment services, paying bills means one of two things: mailing a check, or physically going to an office and handing over money. It's hard for most of us to remember what a hassle this is, but it's easy to calculate how much money you save simply not using stamps to mail checks to various places. (Stamps now cost $0.49 in the US. Multiply that by the various bills you have, and that—plus your time to write checks—is what you're saving by using an online service. My online bill payment service reports that I paid nine bills online last month. That's $4.41 in postage saved, not to mention my time writing out checks and licking envelopes.) Of course, if you don't have a bank, you don't have checks—and money orders cost more than $1, not including postage.

The unbanked don't have the luxury of online bill payments, though some progress is being made with mobile banking and mobile payments. Impatient Optimists wrote, “Paying bills by mobile phone can be up to 40 percent cheaper than a bank visit, says Michael Wakileh, CEO of software company ProgressSoft, which specializes in digital payment systems.”

5. Deposit (and Other) Insurance

In the U.S., the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures each depositor for $250,000 per insured bank. In simple terms, this means that if your bank goes under, and you've got less than $250,000 in there, you'll get your money back. This stands in stark contrast to the old "money in the mattress" model, where your capital is always at risk.

In addition to deposit insurance, many banks and credit unions also offer access to other forms of personal insurance. My credit union offers free life insurance (admittedly not much free life insurance, but it exists) as a perk of membership.

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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]