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11 Things You Can Borrow From Libraries Besides Books

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There’s more to libraries than just plain old books. Many, if not most, also have movies, music, and audio and ebooks to lend out. But what about a parking pass for a Civil War fort? Or a circular saw? Well, depending on where you live, you can borrow those, too. Here are just a few odds and ends that some libraries lend out.  

1. Fishing Poles 

If you’re not ready to commit to buying your own fishing gear, your local library might have you covered. Erie, Pennsylvania’s Blasco Library, for example, loans out fishing poles and tackle boxes, while several branches of the Chicago Public Library run a “Rods and Reads” program that provides poles and tackle sets for adults and kids.

2. Museum Passes 

A bunch of libraries lend out passes for free or discounted admission to museums and other institutions. Chicago libraries have “Museum Passports” good for admission for families of four to 15 different area attractions like the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium. The Fairfield Public Library in Connecticut lends admission passes for 42 different museums in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. In Michigan, the Library Network provides “Michigan Activity Passes” [PDF] for admission or discounts at more than 100 museums, galleries, and other institutions across the state. Georgia libraries have passes for Georgia State Parks and historic sites that provide admission for four people and cover parking fees.

3. Art

Need something pretty to hang on your wall, or a conversation piece for your mantle? Libraries in Ann Arbor, Minneapolis, Iowa City, Aurora, Ill., and Braddock, Penn. have original artwork, prints, posters, and even sculptures that you can take home and display.

4. Internet Access

The Chicago Public Library and New York Public Library both loan out mobile hotspots so patrons can have mobile broadband Internet access at home or on the go. 

5. A Book Club 

At the Ann Arbor District Library, you can borrow a Book Club To Go, with 10 copies of a featured book (the selections range from best-sellers to the obscure, and include fiction and non-fiction), a DVD if a movie adaptation exists, and a packet that contains discussion questions and tips for running a book club. The Edwardsville Public Library in Illinois has a similar service called Book Club in a Box.

6. Seeds 

Arizona’s Pima County Public Library has seeds for hundreds of types of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that patrons can take home and plant in their gardens. You can’t return them like books, of course, but the library encourages borrowers to save and donate seeds from their grown plants. 

7. Power Tools 

Have a home project you wanna do yourself? The Berkeley and Oakland public libraries both have a variety of carpentry, masonry, plumbing, electrical, and landscaping tools to lend out. The Ann Arbor library also has a tool collection, but focuses on “uncommon tools that you might not have lying about,” like thermal leak detectors and air quality meters. 

8. Musical Instruments 

The Ann Arbor library’s instrument collection also centers around the uncommon and unusual. You can borrow everything from guitar effects pedals to theremins and voice transformers. If you’re going for a different sound, the Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass. has banjos, bongos, and ukuleles. 

9. A Green Screen

Take your home movies to the next level with help from the Skokie, Ill. public library’s digital media lab. They’ve got computers loaded with video editing software, microphones and mic stands and, for those digital effects-heavy scenes, a green screen.

10. A Dog 

Stressed out Yalies can stop by the Lillian Goldman Law Library and “check out” General Montgomery, a certified therapy dog owned by one of the librarians, for a 30-minute petting session. 

11. A Person

Libraries around the world host “human library” programs where visitors can sit down with human “books” and learn about their different cultures, backgrounds, and life experiences. 

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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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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]

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