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14 Totally Free Things on the Internet Everyone Should Take Advantage of

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By Wil Fulton

The wunderkinds over on reddit took a break from uncracked safes and banana-based measurements to post a mega-thread addressing the best of the best of all things free on the interwebs, and I couldn't help but share some of the highlights with you all. If you're savvy, you might recognize a few of these bad boys already, but don't spoil the Supermarket Sweep-style fun for the rest of us, OK?

1. COLLEGE COURSES, NO TUITION

Is the fear of smothering, unbearable student debt steering you away from the path of higher education? Class Central exposes hundreds of online class courses from the likes of Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, without that pesky tuition nonsense. This means you can educate yourself in subjects like Molecular Biology, Advanced Operating Systems, or The Rise Of Superheroes And Their Impact On Pop Culture. It's all the information you need to become a fully functional adult in today's global economy, without the loans, leftover futons, and career-debilitating Facebook photo rolls.

2. SELF-DESTRUCTING EMAIL ADDRESSES

With 10 Minute Mail, you can create an extremely temporary email address that will automatically self-destruct in 10 minutes, allowing you to sign up for sites, lists, and deals without the unbearable spam cannon that normally accompanies your quiet compliance. Also good for anonymous threats and insults to friends/family members. Not that I'd do that, of course.

3. AMBIENT SOUNDS FOR ANY OCCASION

If you simply can't work/sleep/make love without some kind of comforting white noise cascading over your eardrums, A Soft Murmur has you covered with all the classic ambient noises, and the somewhat odd ability to play a bunch of them at once. DJ Careless Whisper? You had me at "singing bowl" and "fire."

4. LEARN EVERY LANGUAGE ON EARTH 

If you've ever felt devastatingly isolated at your Swedish cousin's wedding to her Argentinean lover in Seoul (due to the triple language barrier), Duolingo might be right for you. Touted as the free Rosetta Stone—and some consider it to be even better—Duolingo softens the blow of learning another language by taking the pressure off your wallet. You'll be ordering with cultural authenticity at Taco Bell en un santiamén, muchacho.

5. UNLIMITED ACCESS TO A MEGA-LIBRARY OF DOCUMENTARIES

Documentaries have been experiencing a recent boom thanks to their accessibility on Netflix, but one can only watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi so many times, and there's no chance in hell I'm buying a DVD again. With Documentary Heaven, you have access to an endless river of reality piping through your computer monitor, like trout swimming upstream during their annual mating season (watch the documentary, you'll see what I mean).

6. SOMEONE TO SPILL YOUR GUTS TO

Everyone needs somebody, sometime—as Dean Martin once famously crooned, and most of the time, you don't have the funds or time to drop on a therapist or high-end escort. Welcome to 7 Cups of Tea, a completely free way to connect live with a "listener," with a bounty of free counseling options available. It's all anonymous too, so you don't have to worry about any of your dirty little secrets becoming public. What an age to be alive. 

7. AUTOMATIC ALERTS OR ACTIONS FOR EVERYTHING YOU CARE ABOUT

While it's been notorious on the Internet for quite some time, If This, Then That is one of those sites that's bound to blow up one day (in a good way). Once you log in, you can create a "recipe," programming an alert or action that will happen anytime two correlating actions occur on the web. For instance, you can automatically push photos posted on your Facebook to a secure Dropbox, the second they are posted. Or, have an email sent to you anytime someone mentions "Cat," "Shaving," and "Wanted by Authorities" on all your local news sites. The possibilities are endless.

8. FREE USED SH*T 

Craigslist, the domain of questionable career opportunities as well as questionable sexual opportunities, has become a digital smorgasbord of totally free sh*t. If you select your appropriate region, you’ll see a “Free” section under the “For Sale” category (confusing, I know) chock-full to the innuendo-soaked rim with perfectly good items folks are just begging to give away. Check out what you can snag sans payment in NYC alone. Pro Tip: Avoid any cloth-based furniture (for obvious, soiled reasons) as well as any intimate products, also for obvious reasons.

9. OLD-SCHOOL VIDEO GAMES 

For my generation, some of the best childhood memories consist of gathering around a glowing TV screen, slowing rotting our minds with video games while vehemently ignoring the shining sun and temperate climate outside. Man, those were the days. For a quick blast of nostalgia to the face, hit up this SNES, NES, and SEGA emulator to relive your pasty glory years. All you have to worry about is your boss catching you playing Castlevania in between TPS reports. Unless you don’t have a job. Then you probably shouldn't be playing SNES emulators, anyway.

10. ALL THE FONTS YOU COULD EVER WANT 

Normally, finding the right font for your situation isn't a huge problem. But that's probably because you don't know the dizzying heights design has reached in recent years. You are in for the shock of a lifetime, pal, because Lost Type has you covered from stylized head to sans-serif toe. With psychoactive billboard sets and funkadelic superfly stylings, your eyes will be widened to the magical world of spectacular fonts, all free to use in any way you wish. But please, type responsibly.

11. PHOTO EDITING WITH PANACHE 

For those who want their photos to shine a little bit brighter or to casually drop themselves into Ariana Grande’s vacation pics (no judging), but balk at the big bucks for Photoshop, the photo editing app Pixlr is available for your computer and smartphone for the low price of absolutely nothing. Though it doesn’t have the absurd level of customization and features that Photoshop so smugly touts, it's a very serviceable application for amateur to mid-level Instagrammers who are sick of using Valencia as a crutch.

12. PILES AND PILES OF VALUABLE COUPONS 

Carol Pyles, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This is extremely relevant for those who not only want free swag, but want their free swag to turn into other free swag. RetailMeNot is an aggregate of comped codes, coupons, and other door-busting deals for both online services and brick & mortar outfits—with offerings varying from H&M to Domino's. So, you can get those organ-constricting skinny jeans on the cheap, with money left over to get cheese-soaked, grease-stuffed sugar sticks to ensure you will never fit in them again.

13. MANAGE YOUR FINANCES AND YOUR FUTURE 

Living paycheck to paycheck? Can't afford to buy milk for your nonexistent cereal? Is your life literally crashing down around you as we speak? The sleek, financial management site Mint is a payment-free resource that allows you to check your credit, pay bills, and manage your bank accounts on a safe, well-designed platform. It will pretty much handle everything that has to do with your hard-earned bacon, aside from actually earning it for you. Still waiting for that upgrade, slackers...

14. HELP FEED THE WORLD 

Meet the only thing on this list ideal for those instances when you are trying to actually give the world something, instead of just reaping the bounty of comped items and services like a cyber-glutton. With Freerice, you can exercise your noggin and help feed hungry humans all over the world, without sparing a dime. The site presents you with a series of questions in subjects like English grammar and basic chemistry, and for every correct answer, the World Food Programme will donate 10 grains of rice to the global cause. You can rack up the grains pretty quickly, though -- and all for a worthwhile cause. It's trivia that can make an actual difference. Unlike Trivial Pursuit, which just tears families apart. Trust me, I haven't spoken to my sister in years. Denise, if you're reading this, please call me.

All images courtesy of Shutterstock unless noted otherwise. 

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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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