Original image
Flickr / Mike Grauer Jr / Creative Commons

5 Crucial Services I Take for Granted

Original image
Flickr / Mike Grauer Jr / Creative Commons

Two weeks ago, my hometown of Portland, Oregon was hit with a boil water order, due to possible contamination in our local water supply. In an instant, daily life changed. It was no longer safe to drink from the tap, all ice made for the past few days had to be discarded, and any recently-prepared drinks were also suspect. Many restaurants simply closed their doors, unable to rapidly boil all the water needed for food preparation and cleaning. Even at home, it became much harder to do simple things like grab a glass of water or brush my teeth.

Although Portland's water problem cleared up within 24 hours, it was a stark reminder that seemingly simple services like water are so essential to my daily life that I rarely think about them at all. Here's a look at some services I take for granted. Share your own in the comments!

1. Clean Water from the Tap

On Friday, May 23, Portland told 670,000 residents of the metro area that their water might be contaminated. This came after a series of water tests that showed E. coli and fecal matter contamination in several local reservoirs. Text messages, emails, and phone calls spread through the city, but most people I know saw the alerts first through social media. (I got a cell phone alert five hours after seeing the news on Twitter.)

I dumped all the ice in my freezer, shut off the ice-maker, set up a few pots of water to boil, and went about my business. That night at a comedy show, huge signs said "OUR ICE IS SAFE - FROM AN OUTSIDE VENDOR." At the restaurant nearby (one of those that remained open), a long list of items had to be removed from the menu. By the following morning the boil-water alert was lifted.

While this boil-water business was a hassle (and even a safety hazard, as people can burn or scald themselves when boiling water), it was also a stunning reminder of how easy it still was to get clean water. After all, the taps still ran and the gas lines still fired up the range. It wasn't that bad; the water wasn't full of toxic chemicals, unlike the water my family in West Virginia is still dealing with. I didn't have to walk miles to get clean-ish water; it came to me and I could make it clean by flicking on a burner.

According to charity: water, nearly 1 billion people worldwide don't have access to clean water. The WHO estimates that 3.6% of global disease could be prevented simply by providing access to clean water. And 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases primarily "attributed to unsafe water supply, inadequate sanitation and hygiene." These are all reminders that water is a vital basic need, and a billion of us don't have access to it.

2. A Clean, Private Toilet

I live in a house that's about a hundred years old. When it was built, it had an outhouse in the back yard because there was no indoor plumbing. Now that's just a memory, with 50s-era indoor plumbing and a pair of bathrooms. It's hard for me to imagine life without a toilet...and the fact that I have my choice of two is truly a luxury.

In other parts of the world, things can be different. In the slums of Pune, India, a single public toilet can serve 1,000 people every day. Here's a video featuring Swapnil Chaturvedi, a toilet cleaner living in Pune, who has set out to provide clean toilets for the urban poor:

See also: 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome, featuring "Mr. Toilet."

3. Access to Vaccines

I live about a mile from a supermarket with a pharmacy inside. It offers a variety of common vaccinations, many of which are free if you have health insurance. Every year I go in and get a flu vaccination, and it's an extremely simple process. They even give me a 10%-off coupon for groceries—quite a bargain.

But not everybody has such easy access to vaccines. Many vaccines require careful "cold chain" treatment to remain effective, and that's a serious challenge in rural areas. There are also disaster scenarios where transporting vaccines can be tricky even in the developed world; I know my local pharmacy would not have trouble keeping up if a flu pandemic struck at the same time as a major earthquake. That's where stockpiles and rapid delivery systems come in.

Around the world, there are massive stockpiles of all sorts of things, including vaccines. Within the U.S., the CDC maintains a Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) system, allowing for emergency aid in the event of attacks, pandemics, natural disasters, you name it. Here's a video describing how it works, and you can read about some surprisingly fascinating stockpiles as well:

4. Libraries

There's a public library down the road from me. It's a good long walk, or a quick bike ride, and inside are plenty of books, computers, and reference librarians. It's an incredible resource, in part because it draws together the community—the library is a unique space in which any community member can show up and learn, free of charge. Libraries are the only public spaces we devote to learning, aside from schools.

Libraries lift communities. Last year, we profiled 4 Innovative Libraries Transforming Lives Around the World. Here's one:

See also: Why Libraries Matter, a short film showing how New York City's public libraries are making a difference for New Yorkers every day.

5. Banking

I rarely go to a physical bank anymore, though they seem to be everywhere. For the most part I just don't need in-person banking services, since my smartphone and bank cards can do all my daily tasks—including depositing checks by taking pictures of them, which still feels like science fiction to me.

But in many parts of the world, banks are simply not available. In South Asia, 78% of working adults are "unbanked," meaning they don't have a bank account at all. Even in the U.S., an estimated 1 in 12 households is unbanked. Technology is helping in many areas, but there's still a long way to go. You can read more about the state of banking around the world in our roundup of Modern Banking Services You Might Take for Granted.

Share Your Story

Have you been reminded lately of a service you might take for granted? Share your story in the comments!

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]