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What Is a Credit Union—and How Is it Different From a Bank?

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Between the 2008 financial crisis and the recent Wells Fargo fiasco, consumers have grown distrustful of banks and are considering credit unions as an alternative place to park their cash. Just like banks, credit unions accept deposits and make loans—so how, exactly, are they different?

For one, they have a democratic history. The first credit unions were established as cooperatives, meaning the people who kept their cash in the credit union also helped manage it—and they still operate this way today. As such, you are treated as a member, not a customer, and have the right to vote on a board of directors. Typically, personal finance expert Tal Frank tells mental_floss, membership often means you can expect better service at a credit union than at a big bank.

“However, if comparing a credit union to a community bank or a small local bank, you will probably find that you get a high level of service at both," Frank says. "The smaller guys try harder. They also have more of a personal connection with clients or members.”

Credit unions are also non-profit organizations. "So, unlike banks, they don't have stockholders who expect to receive a quarterly dividend payment," Timothy Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University, tells mental_floss. "And without the need to pay stockholders, federally insured credit unions can benefit their members by keeping fees low.”

As Weidman says, because they’re non-profit, credit unions can use any excess earnings to offer customers lower rates and better financial products. “Most banks pay lousy rates of interest, have too many fees, charge too much for those fees, and charge too much interest when loaning money,” says Wiedman. “Virtually all federally insured credit unions beat most banks in nearly every one of those categories.”

But the fact that they're community-focused cooperatives doesn't mean credit unions are a free-for-all: They operate under certain rules set by an organization called the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). In addition to setting guidelines, the NCUA also insures your funds (just as the FDIC—Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—does your deposits at a bank).

Interested an opening an account? Credit unions are a bit more exclusive than banks. “In the olden days, one had to be an employee of a particular company or member of a certain group to join a credit union,” Frank says. “Over the years that distinction has eroded for many credit unions. Guidelines changed to include allowing membership for family, a specific occupation, or all those who live in a geographic area (even as large as an entire state). As an example, Delta Community Credit Union is the largest in Georgia. Although there are ‘membership eligibility’ guidelines, the guidelines are so broad that it is pretty much open to anyone.”

Many credit unions will expand their membership to people outside of an industry or area if you make a small charitable donation, too. The Pentagon Financial Credit Union, for example, is typically only open to military employees, but just about anyone can get a membership with a one-time $15 donation to Voices for America's Troops or the National Military Family Association.

If you’re looking for a credit union, ASmarterChoice.org is a good place to start your search. You'll need to vet the credit union carefully, as you would any other financial institution: Make sure they are indeed insured by the NCUA, and read member reviews on comparison sites like NerdWallet and Bankrate. If convenience is important to you, you’ll also want to check out their mobile and online banking options to make sure they fit your needs.

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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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