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10 Odd Things You Can Buy From Monks

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getty images/istock

Everyone knows you can buy cheese, fruitcake, and really good beer from monks, but those aren’t the only businesses that these holy men dabble in. Here are some stranger things you can acquire from them.

1. Coffins

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The monks of New Melleray Abbey came to Iowa from Ireland in 1849 to escape the potato famine. To support themselves, they've been selling caskets wholesale to families in the area since 1999; their products are made from “native wood crafted with skill and prayer.”

The Benedictine monks of St. Joseph Abbey in southern Louisiana also sell caskets, but ran into some trouble with the state board—it's illegal in Louisiana to sell “funeral merchandise” unless you’re a licensed funeral director. After five years battling in court, the monks finally won the right to sell their products in 2013.

2. and 3. Dog Training and Treats

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If you find yourself with a dog that is unusually hard to train, turn to the monks of New Skete. This monastery offers helpful advice and tips for keeping your pooch in line. They sell a 2-disk DVD series that gives you the low-down on how to train your dog with the New Skete Approach.

If you want appropriate biscuits to go with your dog lessons, New Skete also sells dog treats. The snacks are made with parsley and mint to keep your pup’s breath fresh. You can buy in bulk or just one bag.

4. Lip balm

The Benedictine Monks of St Augustine's Abbey, located in Great Britain, sell hand creams and lip balms made with organic beeswax and other natural ingredients. The monks developed the recipes and blended the ingredients themselves.

5. Ski lessons

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Cistercian monks who dwell near the Alps take advantage of their surroundings by training young athletes on the slopes. After settling in the area after World War II, they set up a skiing boarding school known as Skigymnasium Stams. The program is very successful; many of Austria's skiing champions went there.

6. Cologne

If you ever wanted to smell like a Pope, now is your chance. The Monks of The Community Of Saint Benedict sell a whole slew of interesting gifts and knick-knacks, including bath salts and fragrances. You can even buy cologne made from the recovered recipe of Pope Pius IX, who held the papacy from 1846 until his death in 1878. The monks tried to recreate the formula by using the same ingredients and following the complex recipe closely. It's rare that you can call your cologne “historic,” but this one might fit the bill.

7. Cat advent calendars

Monastery Greetings sells items made by abbeys, convents, monasteries, and hermitages. The website sells roughly 1600 products and works with some 75 monasteries around the world. Founder Will Keller works to help monasteries get their products online and more accessible. Thanks to this website, you can now get a kitten advent calendar for all the crazy cat people you know.

8. Hot sauce

Known as “Monk Sauce,” this spicy condiment comes in two varieties: red habanero and green habanero. The peppers are grown in the gardens of Subiaco Abbey by Benedictine monks. The website promises that the taste is “not only massively hot, but also one that is intensely flavorful.”

9. A drink at a bar

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Japan takes brewing a step further with a Buddhist Monk-run bar called Vow'z Bar. The bar is meant to be a more casual environment for spirituality. "When people have had a few drinks, it’s often easier to communicate with them on spiritual matters here than it is talking at a temple," Yoshinobu Fujioka, Buddhist priest and owner of Vow'z Bar, told CNN Travel. The bar hosts events for visitors to come and discuss Buddhism.

10. Bonsai Trees

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Cistercian monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit have been tending to a bonsai garden in Georgia for 35 years. They offer miniature plants, pottery, and accessories at their Abbey Garden Center. Visitors are also encouraged to create and tend to their own bonsai plants.

BONUS: Inks and toners

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The Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank was known for making their money by selling ink and toner cartridges online. Their website, LaserMonks.com, came about when their superior, Reverend Bernard McCoy, noticed how expensive toner was. The website was a huge success and made $4.5 million in revenue in 2008. Unfortunately, as a result of debt and dwindling membership, the abbey closed in 2011.

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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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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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