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The Nazis Were on to Continental Drift Before Everyone Else

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Wikimedia Commons

“The dream of a great poet.”

“A fairy tale.”

“Delirious ravings.”

“Moving crust disease and wandering pole plague.”

“Germanic pseudoscience.”

In the early 20th century, all these terms—and dozens of other equally colorful ones—were hurled at an emerging scientific idea that we’ve since come to accept as irrefutable and treat as common knowledge.

You may know it as the science of plate tectonics, the explanation of the mechanics of how the puzzle pieces that make up the earth’s surface move around and came to settle (somewhat) into the position they’re in today. In its infancy, though, the idea was known as continental drift, or continental displacement, and was widely regarded by geologists as BS.

Catch My Drift?

Continental drift was proposed by German scientist Alfred Wegener, an untenured and unsalaried lecturer at the University of Marburg. Geology was not his field—he specialized in meteorology and astronomy—but after he became fascinated with the apparent matching coastlines of the various continents while browsing through an atlas, he threw disciplinary boundaries to the wind and pursued his idea. What he proposed was that the continents had once all been joined together in a larger landmass he dubbed the Urkontinent, and was later called  Pangaea (from the Greek pan- (“all”) and gaia (“earth”). At some point in time, the seams running along the supercontinent became unraveled and Pangaea broke into smaller pieces, which drifted, slowly but surely, into their current positions. As evidence, he pointed to live and fossil plants and animals on opposite sides of oceans that were the same or very similar, and geological formations that abruptly ended at the edge of one continent and picked up again on another’s shores.

Wegener first presented his theory of continental drift in a lecture to Frankfurt’s Geological Association in 1912, then in a journal article months later, and finally in a book published shortly after he returned from service in World War I. None of this received very much attention until the book was published in English, at which point Wegener was ridiculed by scientists in Britain, the United States, and even his own country. They poked holes in his evidence and his methods, picked at his credentials, and blasted him for not providing a plausible mechanism powerful enough to actually move the continents.

Wegener worked through the assault, addressing valid criticisms with additional evidence, correcting mistakes, and hypothesizing six different mechanisms for the continents’ drift in new editions of his work. Sadly, he died in 1930 on an expedition to Greenland, decades before his theory began to see widespread acceptance with the discovery of seafloor spreading, Wadati-Benioff zones, and other supporting data and evidence.

Friends in Weird Places

Not all the early reactions to continental drift were harsh, though. In the bizarre intellectual atmosphere of the Third Reich, Wegener’s theory had support and approval from an unlikely champion: the Nazi propaganda machine.

While Nazi science is largely remembered today for its more outrageous ideas and experiments, both real and apocryphal—flying saucers, secret Antarctic bases, talking dogs, supersoldiers, ancient Aryan ruins, and more—the Nazis did come down on the right side of continental drifting before most other geologists did.

Under the Nazis, Deutscher Verlag of Berlin published a bimonthly propaganda magazine called Signal. It was distributed throughout Germany, its allied nations and German-occupied areas in more than 20 languages.  It featured war reports, essays on national socialist policies, German technology innovations, and drawings and photographs, all meant to praise the German government and its allies.

The first issue of 1941, mostly devoted to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, contained a peculiar piece of popular science writing: a two-page article on continental drift. In the piece, titled “And Yet They Do Move,” writer K. von Philippoff defended Wegener’s ideas, citing then-new data that showed an increasing distance between the American and European continents (and replicating one of Wegener’s own mistakes by placing too much emphasis on longitudinal measurements that were not accurate enough at the time to really demonstrate his conclusions) and reminding readers of Wegener’s other evidence, like the scattered flora and fauna and the fit of various continental coastlines. He concluded that continental drift provided a plausible and satisfactory answer to many geological and biological questions that couldn’t otherwise be explained and that “no mistake was possible” about the validity of Wegener’s theory.

While continental drift had a few supporters scattered here and there (like British geologist Arthur Holmes, whose own model of the mechanism for the movement of continents featured an early consideration of seafloor spreading), von Philippoff’s article is notable in that its presence in an official German propaganda magazine, reflecting the views of the government, implies approval and support by at least some members of the Nazi higher-ups. For all the horror and suffering they unleashed upon the world, history’s greatest villains were at least far ahead of their time in the field of geology.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]