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Early Time Travel? Why Britain Lost 11 Days in 1752

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For one year, more than two centuries ago, September 3-13 didn't exist in the British Empire. Overnight, citizens were transported from Wednesday, September 2, 1752 to Thursday, September 14.

The loss of 11 days was intentional. Britain implemented the Gregorian calendar in place of the pre-existing Julian calendar, the main timeline used worldwide after Julius Caesar introduced it in 45 BCE. And in order to properly transition, the empire needed to move ahead in the month.

The Julian calendar was designed around the assumption that each year is 365 days and six hours long. The result: every four years an extra day was added to February—much like the leap years we know now. However, this format resulted in an lag of approximately 18 hours each century. As time passed, the Julian calendar became increasingly inaccurate, and the Catholic Church was particularly uneasy with Easter gradually moving farther and farther away from the spring equinox.

The Gregorian calendar attempts to correct this lapse and more closely align the calendar year with the solar year, the length of time it takes the Earth to complete one orbit around the sun. In order to do this, the qualifications for a leap year became more complicated. The calendar system demanded that there can only be an extra day in years that are divisible by four. If the year could also be evenly divided by 100, it was not a leap year unless it could also be evenly divided by 400. For instance, 1900 would have previously been a leap year, but it no longer was since it didn’t meet the updated guidelines. Another notable change is that the New Year, which previously began on March 25 in Britain, moved to January 1.

Some accounts claim the changes didn't go over smoothly. Citizens reportedly took to the streets, rioting and demanding, “Give us our 11 days.” This legend is reinforced by interpretations of William Hogarth’s 1755 painting titled "An Election Entertainment” that depicts Whig candidates at a tavern dinner and a stolen banner that reads "Give us our Eleven Days.” However, Historic U.K. reports that historians now believe stories of the riots are exaggerated and the protests are simply an urban myth.

It is also believed that many Protestant countries pushed back on adopting the Gregorian calendar because it was strongly supported by the Catholic Church. The Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 and Catholic countries like Spain, Italy, and Portugal put into place that same year. However, Protestant Germany held out until 1700 and England, of course, waited until 1752.

Whether or not the English citizens were unhappy with the loss of 11 days, one resident of the 13 Colonies, which was part of the British Empire at the time, reportedly didn’t mind. Benjamin Franklin praised the switch, writing, “It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14."

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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]