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The Outer Banks

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Listen, kids, we're going on an educational vacation this year! Now, before you moan and groan, we are going to learn about pirates, and airplanes, and Indians, and ... it's at the beach!

If you've ever noticed the squiggle in the east coast of detailed US maps, you've seen the Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina. Take highway 64. When you see the unforgettable billboard for Dirty Dick's Crab House, slow down because you are about to hit the ocean at Nags Head. Then you have to turn left or right, but in either direction, you'll find something interesting to learn about.

A fascinating confluence of history and vacation, after the jump.

Turn south and you'll enter Cape Hatteras National Seashore, with 75 miles of seashore on each side, limited development, and protected wildlife. Ocracoke Island is the southernmost part of the national seashore, and was recently named the United States' best beach. There are no roads to Ocracoke, so you'll have to get there by ferry or private plane.


Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard the Pirate, used Ocrakoke Island as his northern headquarters during his heyday in the 18th century. He died there in 1718.


The Outer Banks area is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, due to a high density of shipwrecks. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museumin Hatteras is both a walk-in and online resource about shipwrecks.


The current 220-foot Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built in 1871 to guide ships around Diamond Shoals. By the 1990s, the encroaching sea threatened the undermine the lighthouse, so in 1999 it was moved, inch by inch, to a location 2,870 feet inland.


Just a couple of miles north of Nags Head is Kitty Hawk, which became famous as the place from which Orville Wright telegraphed the news of the first airplane flight in 1903. Orville and his brother Wilbur had moved to the Outer Banks for their flight experiments due to the constant winds and the soft landing surface. The actual flight took place in Kill Devil Hills, just a couple more miles north. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is open year round. You can see the actual path of the first flight (which is shorter than a modern airliner), and visit the huge memorial on the hill. On a side note, wireless telegraphyoriginated in the Outer Banks only a couple of years earlier.


Those famous prevailing winds at Kitty Hawk are still in use! The area is home to Kitty Hawk Kites, the world's largest hang-gliding school.


Roanoke Island is just west of the barrier islands. This is where Sir Walter Raleigh financed a colony of settlers in 1585. After three years with no supplies from England, the site was found completely deserted with no clue as to what happened to the settlers. The prevailing theory is that they split up and were absorbed by local Native American tribes. Personally, I think the mosquitos did them in. If DEET were available in the 16th century, history might have been different. The story is still told in the play The Lost Colonyat Manteo.

Just in case you think that an OBX vacation is all about history, check out the other activities such as fishing, dolphin watching, and windsurfing. And my family ends up doing a lot of this:

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]