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10 Interesting Things About Great Britain

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By Erica Rex

1. The Cabbies Are Smarter Than Google Maps

London has the most informed cab drivers in the world—and they’ve got the diplomas to prove it. To become a certified taxi operator in London, a driver must first pass “the Knowledge,” an extraordinarily difficult exam that involves the detailed recall of 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of London’s Charing Cross railway station. But that’s just the beginning. Cabbies must also memorize the locations of clubs, hospitals, hotels, parks, theaters, schools, restaurants, government buildings, and churches. Plus, they have to be fluent in English.

Most drivers take three years to master the Knowledge, and many practice by tracing the routes on a bicycle. It’s not uncommon to see future cabbies pedaling through the city in the early morning with plastic-covered maps clipped to their handlebars. Drivers must know their directions backwards and forwards, which is a complicated task in the maze of London’s one-way streets and blocked-off pedestrian zones.

The testing process isn’t quick, either. The exam comprises a six-month series of evaluations that includes written, oral, and practical tests, and only one-quarter of the candidates make it through. But there’s an additional benefit for those who pass. In 2000, researchers at the Wellcome Trust in London scanned the brains of 16 London taxi drivers and found that each cabbie’s hippocampus—the area of the brain associated with memory—was larger than those of control subjects. Scientists believe that the hippocampus grew larger as the drivers spent more time on the job. Storing and retaining that much information could actually be a prescription for avoiding dementia.

2. The Swans Never Miss a Census

The royal family provides a full range of curiosities beyond extravagant weddings. Consider the tradition of England’s annual swan census. Officially, the Queen owns all of the mute swans along the Thames River. But determining just how many birds are in Her Majesty’s flock takes work. So, every July, the royal family conducts a “Swan Upping,” when an armada of skiffs row up the Thames looking for baby swans. When the rowers spot them, they shout, “All up!” and get into formation surrounding the tiny birds. Then the swans are meticulously examined, weighed, measured, and banded by the Queen’s Swan Warden, a Professor of Ornithology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. Adult swans are examined and counted, too.

The Swan Upping dates back to at least the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans on open water. Today, the tradition exists purely for the Crown’s amusement, but the historical justification for the census makes sense. Back in the 1100s, swan meat was considered a delicacy, and it was often served at royal banquets. By keeping strict tabs on the birds, all the king’s henchmen could make sure that no one was poaching from the royal flock.

3. The Doctor’s Offices Are Worthy of Poetry

The first National Healthcare System (NHS) hospital opened its doors on July 5, 1948. Ever since, it’s provided free services to all, regardless of wealth or status. But treating anyone and everyone requires an army of a staff, and today, the NHS employs a whopping 1.7 million people. Only Walmart boasts more paid employees.

But just because the organization employs a lot of workers doesn’t mean that patients are treated to speedy service. In fact, the delays to see an NHS doctor can get pretty long, which is why poet Michael Lee founded a charity in 1998 called Poems in the Waiting Room. The organization distributes cards, each containing seven or eight poems, to the waiting rooms of 1400 medical practices.

Of course, not every poem submitted makes the grade. The compositions can be modern or classic, but the theme matters immensely. Most of the poems are about home, journeys, acceptance, friendship, learning, and love. But before a piece can be accepted for publication, a psychotherapist must screen each selection to ensure that the verse is suitable for the “anxious and even possibly emotionally disturbed.” These days, Poems in the Waiting Room is so popular that it’s launched foreign editions in New Zealand and Ireland. And in the summer of 2010, the Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., became the first medical center in the United States to adopt the program.

4. The Nannies Are Loaded

In the United Kingdom, nannies can earn higher starting salaries than teachers, policemen, and nurses—if they come with the right credentials. Usually, that means training at England’s most prestigious nanny finishing school, Norland College in Bath. Graduates of the two-year program can look forward to annual starting salaries around $40,000 USD, not to mention expense-paid holidays with their employers to places like Dubai and Val d’Isère. And that’s just fresh out of school. An experienced Norland nanny can earn up to $160,000 USD per year.

For more than a century, England’s rich and famous have relied on Norland nannies to tend to their young. Mick Jagger’s children were raised by Norland nannies, as were Princess Anne’s. Both swear by them.

5. The Castles Are Anything But Romantic

England boasts some 1000 castles. Today, most of them operate as hotels and tourist attractions, but in their glory days, castles had a very different purpose—to keep people out. Built on hilltops, castles usually posted guards on their battlements, where they could see invaders coming from miles away. As foreigners advanced, archers would shoot arrows at them through tiny slits in the castle walls that allowed them to see out without letting enemies see in.

Even if trespassers were skilled enough to survive the arrows and the moat surrounding the castle, getting beyond the gate was nearly impossible. Guards posted on the roofs would pour hot oil on invaders’ heads through “murder holes,” small openings in the ceiling just in front of the entrance. But perhaps the sneakiest defense tactic of all was the one that looked the most harmless: the spiral staircase. In castles, staircases ascend clockwise, making it much more difficult for a right-handed intruder to wield a sword and attack. Instead, the intruder’s body was exposed to the right-handed defenders coming down the stairs, rendering invaders completely vulnerable.

6. You Can Dance Like a Horned Beast

Britain has an enormous appetite for summer festivals. There are concerts, hog roasts, science fairs, and of course the famed Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts in Hay-on-Wye, Wales (dubbed by Bill Clinton as “the Woodstock of the mind”). But the prize for the oldest and strangest festival goes to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, first performed in a small village in Staffordshire in 1226. That year, hunting rights were granted to the residents of nearby Needwood Forest. To celebrate, some of the men put on reindeer horns and paraded through town, dancing and singing like worshippers in a pagan fertility rite.

But there’s an element of mystery to the story, too. Thanks to the wonders of carbon dating, scientists learned that one set of the reindeer horns is 950 years old—older than the festival itself. And because there are no reindeer in the United Kingdom, many historians speculate that Vikings brought the horns over from Scandinavia. Also fascinating is the fact that the Horn Dancers closely resemble the figures in the famous Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, in modern-day France, which are estimated to be 17,000 years old. Depending on how you look at it, the Horn Dance is either pure silliness, or a mystery wrapped in a horn helmet wrapped in a tradition dating back to the dawn of mankind!

7. The Pub Food Might Be Better Than the Drink

In England, pubs are as central to daily life as church and school. They serve as communal living rooms where people meet to chat, gossip, sing, and drink. But in recent years, pubs have been closing at an average rate of six per day throughout the country.

Some say the decline is due to recent bans on smoking in the establishments. Others blame big retailers for undercutting the local pubs’ prices. For example, in the week leading up to the World Cup, mammoth grocery chain Tesco offered shoppers two dozen cans of Stella Artois for just over $6 USD. Meanwhile, pub patrons could expect to shell out between $30 and $40 USD for the same amount of beer. Rather than watching the World Cup on the big screen at their local watering hole, lots of people watched the games at home instead. It was simply cheaper that way.

But some pubs are fighting back with a new strategy: expanding their appeal to women and families. As part of the effort, “gastropubs” such as The Fox in Chetwynd-Aston, Shropshire, have begun serving excellent food, including high-end fare like fennel-and-leek soup, goat cheese-and-cranberry salad, and chicken liver pâté. That’s a long way from traditional pub grub like the ploughman’s lunch—a hunk of bread, a slab of Cheddar, a few pickles, and a pint of beer.

8. Losing Your Job Doesn’t Mean Losing Your Mansion

In Britain, if you’ve lost your job or simply taken a salary cut, the government will help cover your rent. According to a policy called the Housing Benefit, any legal U.K. resident whose income has been reduced can file a claim for aid—and it’s hardly a paltry sum. For people who rent in posh London neighborhoods, it can mean up to £1750 (about $2800 USD) a month in financial aid. (The program applies only to rent, not mortgage payments.)

The roots of the Housing Benefit stretch back to 1919, when the government started subsidizing public housing for the poor and unemployed. In the decades since, it’s expanded to cover just about anyone who’s lost work—and that’s led to controversy. Opponents of the policy use this example: Say you’re a banker living in London and you lose your job; the Housing Benefit could give you the money to keep your swank apartment in Notting Hill. Now say you’re a factory worker living in Liverpool and you manage to hold onto your job; no one’s giving you a shilling to subsidize your modest townhouse. Instead, your taxes go toward paying rent for some wealthy, unemployed banker. Today, Prime Minister David Cameron is lobbying for change. “It isn’t fair for working people to fund homes they couldn’t even dream of,” he says.

9. The Co-op Is King

The Co-op is more than just a large chain of grocery stores. It’s also the United Kingdom’s third-largest pharmacy chain, its No. 1 provider of funeral services, and its largest farmer, with more than 70,000 acres being cultivated across Great Britain. It also employs 120,000 people, serves 5.5 million members, and operates out of 4800 retail outlets.

How did the Co-op in Britain get so big? The Co-operative Group was founded in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, a group of textile millworkers who wanted to provide the community with high-quality, low-cost goods. In the spirit of egalitarianism and democracy, it allowed anyone to become a member, regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity, as long as they volunteered their time and energy to the mission of the group. In fact, the Rochdale Society formed the principles on which co-operatives around the world operate today.

To cut costs, the Co-op starting buying farmland and growing its own produce in 1896. Since then, it has continued to buy land, and its egalitarian ethos has resonated with generations of British citizens. Today, the Co-op is at the forefront of the nation’s self-sufficiency movement, which encourages people to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle by growing and consuming local foods.

10. The Girls Are Thick as Thieves

While the recent rise of girl gangs in Britain may be keeping U.K. politicians up at night, bands of female crooks are nothing new to the region. Beginning in the late 1700s, an all-female crime syndicate known as the Forty Elephants started using clever thievery to wreak havoc on local economies. The sticky-fingered women became known for using Victorian-era fashions and standards to their advantage. The Elephants had specially tailored pockets sewn into their puffy bloomers and skirts to hide any objects they lifted. And because the prudish norms of the day dictated that women be given total privacy as they browsed and tried on merchandise, the crimes were rarely witnessed. According to The Guardian, the Elephants operated with “military precision,” sometimes robbing dozens of shops across a city all at the same time. So, where have all the Elephants gone? The gang thrived for about 150 years, until the public’s views on women changed, outdating the group’s original tactics.

All images courtesy of Getty Images

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]