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The 12 Days of "In the Beginning"

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51yai+MKH5L._AA240_.jpg We've got another great excerpt from our latest effort In the Beginning for you. There are just 12 more days before it hits stands. Anyone salivating yet?

Roller Coasters

Every story's got its ups and downs. This one just has more than most.

You Must Be This Tall to Read

Although purely a pleasure today, the roller coasters of American roots are actually steeped in practicality. In 1827, a mining entrepreneur named Josiah White started looking for a way to bring tons of valuable coal off the high mountainsides of western Pennsylvania. Rather than wasting time while individual miners carted the stuff down by hand, White opted to build a rail line that connected the top of the mountain to the river landing in the valley below. Each day, mules hauled empty cars uphill where they were loaded with upward of 50,000 pounds of coal. Then, White let gravity take control, releasing the cars, in groups of seven, down the railway with only a hardy (and, perhaps, insane) "runner" to control the brake lever. This solution, ludicrous as it sounds, apparently worked well for nearly 50 years. Better yet, besides helping White's company load and ship more coal, it also provided a steady secondary income as a tourist attraction.
Before long, coal was being hauled on the railway in the morning, while thrill-seeking passengers occupied the afternoon runs—at the equivalent of $8.15 a head. When a tunnel through the mountain made the railway obsolete for coal-hauling in 1872, White gave it over completely to the joy riders, charging more than $15 in modern currency for one person to take an 80-minute ride up and down the mountain. In 1873, 35,000 people were reported to have ridden. While White introduced the illicit thrill of the roller coaster to the United States and invented the safety catch that prevents cars from rolling backward while going uphill, it was the amusement parks at Coney Island that eventually made the roller coaster famous.
roller coaster.jpg The truth is, many of the great amusement parks began life as money-making schemes concocted by trolley companies tired of seeing profits droop on weekends and holidays. Located at the end of the line, the parks gave people a reason to travel even on the laziest of days. Coney Island, on the Brooklyn seashore, featured competing theme parks owned by several different trolley companies. It was here, in 1884, that a former Sunday school teacher named La Marcus Thompson opened the ride that would get him christened "Father of the Gravity Ride." Unfortunately, Thompson's ride wasn't very exciting by modern standards, being little more than a leisurely ride down a 600-foot-long stretch of beach at a less-than-heart-stopping 6 mph. Lucky for him, the Victorians were easily amused. In just three weeks, Thompson made enough to cover his initial investment of $1,600,more than $31,000 today.

Russian Ice Coasters

While we can certainly credit Josiah White with the American roller coaster phenomenon, the act had already been playing in Europe for several decades— all thanks to fun-loving Russians. In the 17th century, Russians began taking advantage of their long, cold winters by building five-story toboggan tracks out of wood, coating them with ice, and charging adventurous souls to ride down the track on a sled, also made of ice. At an angle of 50 degrees, one imagines that these rides were fairly dangerous. They were also immensely popular. Catherine the Great supposedly had private ice slides built near her palace and, in 1804, the concept (sans ice, plus wheels) was imported to France under the name The Russian Mountains.

In the Beginning goes on sale November 1st, and will be available at (respectable) bookstores everywhere!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]