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How To: Get Rescued from a Desert Island

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1 unstoppable will to live
An appreciation for tragic irony

If there's one thing you can say about most desert island strandings, it's that, at the very least, the weather is nice. There are certainly worse islands to be trapped on, thousands of miles from civilization, than a tropical paradise. Antarctica for instance. Sadly, that's just the place explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men found themselves marooned in the fall of 1915. They'd set out to be the first people to cross the Antarctic continent, but their boat ended up trapped and crushed by thick, moving ice.

In one of history's best-known survival stories, the 27 men first walked 250 miles across the ice to a small island, and then Shackleton and six other men sailed a small boat another 800 miles—through some of the world's most treacherous waters—to a whaling station at the tip of South America. Nobody died, and Shackleton was praised as a hero. Sadly, on the other side of Antarctica, the other half of Shackleton's expedition also ended up stranded, and didn't prove as lucky as their co-workers.

Initially planning to cross Antarctica from the South American side, Shackleton didn't want to lug all his supplies with him. So he simply arranged for a team to sail in from the New Zealand side and lay supply depots at set geographic coordinates. The PBS television show "NOVA" explained in 1999 how, accompanied by sled dogs, the seven men set out to lay 4,000 pounds worth of food and supplies at 60-mile intervals from the South Pole to the coast. The job turned out to be harder than they'd anticipated, however. The sleds quickly became too heavy for the dogs to pull through the soft snow and the men had to cut weight by taking out small loads, dropping some supplies, and bringing other supplies back to feed the guys who would take out the next set. Needles to say, this slowed things down a bit—in fact, one mile took four miles of travel to cross.

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Within a month, they were so low on food that they stopped feeding the sled dogs. In temperatures that dipped to "“92 degrees Fahrenheit all the men got severe frostbite. But the worst surprise was yet to come. Limping back into the main camp in June of 1915, six months after setting out, they discovered that their ship had been blown out to sea in a storm and was presumed sunk.

They were stranded without any supplies or food, but they still had a job to do. Believing that Shackleton's life depended on them laying the final supply depots, they cobbled together tents, sleeping bags, food, and stoves from refuse left by earlier expeditions. In late October, they set out to lay the makeshift supplies at the remaining depot points—not realizing that their leader wouldn't be crossing the Antarctic at all.

This final push was a disaster; one of the men died of scurvy, two others nearly kicked it, and everyone was sick. Even after the depots were laid, the six men were still stranded on the Antarctic coast, living off a diet of seal and"¦seal. Two men headed off to look for help and were never heard from again. It wasn't until two years after they'd first landed, on January 10, 1917, that Shackleton—only recently rescued himself—showed up to rescue them. As for the supply depots they'd risked their lives to lay; they're still out there, buried unused beneath countless feet of snow.

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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]