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Running The NYC Marathon: Bad Idea Or Worst Idea?

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Shortly after this was posted, there was an
UPDATE, 5:26 PM: The NYC Marathon has been canceled.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came under fire this week for refusing to postpone or outright cancel the ING NYC Marathon—since renamed The Race To Recover—in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. During the race, some 47,000 runners will cross through the city's five boroughs, some of which are still without power and devastated from the storm. Bloomberg says the race must go on because it brings much-needed business to an economy walloped by Sandy and, what's more, will help the city’s morale. "It'll give people something to cheer about," he said in a press conference today. Race organizers New York Road Runners (NYRR) are asking each participant to donate $1 for every mile run to help the relief effort. But it’s hard to see how a marathon through devastated areas is appropriate when many have lost their homes or loved ones or both, and lack the basic necessities, like clean water and food, that will be provided to marathon runners. Here's what people are saying around the web.

1. The generators powering marathon tents in Central Park would be better used helping those in need. So would all those bottles of water.

Bloomberg has said that hooking up a generator is not as simple as plugging it in. (And it should be noted that the generators in Central Park are being paid for by the marathon, not the city.) But according to The New York Post, "The three diesel-powered generators crank out 800 kilowatts—enough to power 400 homes in ravaged areas like Staten Island, the Rockaways and downtown Manhattan. Generators should give power to people—not [the] marathon." Trucks are also dropping off thousands of bottles of water for the marathoners. "[Seeing the generators and water] makes me feel so bad," flood victim Yelena Gomelsky told the Post. People have no food, no water, nothing. They should make all of these runners bring food and water to people's houses who need it. They should bring all of these generators to buildings where old people live and give them power."

2. The race starts on Staten Island, one of the areas hit hardest by the storm.

During Hurricane Sandy, a 20-foot storm surge hit Staten Island, and residents feel that "the City has prioritized getting Manhattan up and running over getting relief to people who have lost everything," writes Megan McArdle on The Daily Beast. In this NBC news segment, the awful situation becomes clear. "They're still looking for dead bodies," one distraught resident tells Ann Curry. "You need to come here and help us. We need assistance, please." Meanwhile, Staten Island Councilman James Oddo tweeted, "If they take one first responder from Staten Island to cover this marathon, I will scream."

3. Even some runners don't think it's a good idea.

Tom Kellner, who has run every NYC Marathon since 1999, tells Forbes that he won't be running the race this year because "I listened to my common sense and it was telling me that putting on the marathon five days after a huge hurricane trashed large parts of the city and the region was not right. There are homes washed into a coastal marsh near the start in Staten Island. There are thousands of people in the city and outside without heat, power, and clean water. As I write, there are long lines of cars for waiting for gas below my balcony. Large parts of the subway system remain crippled. Many of the dead from the storm have not been buried. I consider myself as one of the good guys. I don’t feel that running this race would be the best way to honor those suffering through so much." Some runners have even pledged to start the race but break off to find volunteer opportunities.

4. Police and volunteers are already stretched thin.

If power is restored to downtown Manhattan tonight, as Con-Edison is hoping, that will free up many police, Bloomberg said today; he has also promised that no resources will be diverted from the relief effort. But according to the New York Times, the NYPD has reached out to retirees to help with both the marathon and storm recovery. “We would begin deployments starting with the NYC Marathon and other assignments to assist the Department thereafter,” the email to retirees read.

Furthermore, one paramedic writes on the Cancel The 2012 NYC Marathon Facebook page, "Your EMS/Fire/Police personnel are beyond exhausted, mentally and physically. To have this marathon this weekend is beyond any energy that myself or that of my coworkers have."

5. The Marathon could displace storm victims.

Many of the city's hotels are currently housing people whose homes were destroyed by the storm. Runners and visitors coming for the marathon could displace them, though some hotel owners have said they won't kick out storm victims to accommodate runners.

6. And also, holding the Marathon is just plain irresponsible.

"Bloomberg’s decision not to cancel the race is, ultimately, a profound and irresponsible error in judgment," writes The New York Times. "Inviting tens of thousands of people, many from out of town, to run through the streets of New York less than a week after the biggest Atlantic storm in history raked the city and leveled entire neighborhoods means that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of cops, emergency and hospital personnel, sanitation workers and others who are needed right now to continue the recovery effort — and, in all probability, to save lives that are still in the balance — all of these men and women will have to spend precious hours concentrating on a road race instead of the critical needs of their fellow citizens." And in the Wall Street Journal, two-time marathon runner Jason Gay asks, "Hosting this marathon just days from now feels like an unnecessarily stressful move, beset by very legitimate questions. Is this race really in the best interest of a damaged city? "

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]