CLOSE
Original image

Pigs, Sharks, And Snowmobiles: Kari Byron Talks Hosting Large Dangerous Rocket Ships

Original image


Science Channel

As co-host of MythBusters, Kari Byron deals with explosions, rocket sleds and general chaos all the time. But not even that experience could prepare her for the spectacle that is Large Dangerous Rocket Ships (LDRS), an annual competition-turned-Science Channel special that Byron began hosting 3 years ago. “The first year I went I felt like I was in a warzone because there are rockets going off constantly,” she says. “Every minute, there’s another one launching off. 3-2-1, pew! 3-2-1, pew! I was shell shocked. But now I’ve gotten used to it.”

Each year, LDRS moves to a different, very remote location. “We have to be somewhere far out, because generally they have to close off airspace when we’re doing extra-wild things,” Byron says. This year, rocket enthusiasts converged on Potter in upstate New York. “We’re basically out in a large field,” she says. “Some people have rockets taller than they are, and some have small model rockets, but everybody’s having a good time. There are rockets going up all around you, and you just have to be on your toes and make sure they don’t come down near you.”

The Main Events

This year’s LDRS special focuses on two events: Fastest to 10,000 Feet (that’s what they close off airspace for) and Odd Rockets, where competitors try to turn any object they can think of into a successful rocket—and land it safely. This part of LDRS is particularly fun. “People are always trying to top what happened the year before,” Byron says. “I’ve seen these guys launch port-a-potties and coffins. And this year, there’s everything from pigs to sharks. It's pretty wild.” But the craziest thing she saw get launched into the air was, hands down, a 400 pound snowmobile. “That was pretty weird, because that’s not one of those things I would have looked at and thought Hmm, I wonder if I could make a rocket out of that? But that’s why these guys are out there. They’re geniuses.”

While some competitors launch existing objects—like that snowmobile and a vintage television set—there are others who build their quirky rockets from scratch, an involved process that calls for lots of design, pre-LDRS tests, and troubleshooting. “I really like the challenge of the aerodynamics of the weird things they get into the air,” Byron says. “Anything that’s shaped like a rocket, it’s like, yeah, yeah, of course that’s going to go up! But when you see people fly things like a pig, you’re like, Wait a minute. How do you even go about modeling a pig to try to get over the drag factor from the legs and the ears? They spend so much time just coming up with the perfect skin—maybe they’re just shaping it in this minute way that nobody would notice but them—but it could make all the difference to the rocket.”

Often, the Odd Rockets crash and burn, and that's all part of the fun (at least for people watching on TV). “[These competitors] know they’re trying to launch things that were never meant for the sky,” Byron says. “It’s a gamble. They get disappointed because they do put all that time, effort and love into it, but when it goes wrong, it’s all part of rocketry.” But when those rockets built to go to 10,000 feet fail to launch, that’s a different story. “When those really expensive, beautiful rockets don’t go into the sky,” Byron says, “that’s when I feel bad.”

The More, The Merrier

This was the 31st year of the LDRS competition, and it doesn’t surprise Byron at all that people keep coming back—or that more people want to join in on the fun. “I think everybody’s got a real fascination with space and flight, and being able to create these rockets is this amazing way to touch the sky for a minute,” she says. “A lot of people who are competing are engineers or they’re in aerospace, and [LDRS is] something that’s natural to them. But there are also a lot of kids out there, getting involved and learning how to make these things work." This mission, in particular, is one Byron is passionate about. "I always love looking for new and interesting ways to get kids—and people in general—interested in science, and I think rockets is a great way to do that, because it’s such a flashy thing to be able to explain science with," she says. "The sound of these rockets going up is beautiful—it’s this shoo! It’s fascinating to watch, and being able to create something that goes up that high is amazing.”

And don't forget the sheer fun in creating those increasingly wacky Odd Rockets. Take note, next year's competitors: There's one object Byron really wants you to make into a rocket. “I’d like to see a full-sized car!” she laughs. “I wonder if they could get a car up in the air?”

Large Dangerous Rocket Ships airs Sunday, October 28 at 10 pm on The Science Channel.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES