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

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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