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C is for Creationism

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In my Year of Living Biblically, one of the more fascinating and surprising pilgrimages was to the new Creation Museum in Kentucky. This is the $25 million museum for those who believe that the earth is 6,000 years old. It's the Louvre of the young earth movement.

And whatever I may think of creationism, I have to admit that the museum is spectacularly well done. There is a scale model of the ark. There are animatronic cave people and dinosaurs. There is a movie theater with sprinklers in the ceiling that go off during the flood scenes.

Here are five things I learned from my visit:

Dinosaurs on the ark, Biblical Astronomers, and why Inherit the Wind is unfair to Creationists, all after the jump...

  1. Creationists are not idiots: If I had to guess, I'd say there's no IQ difference between your average creationist and your average evolutionist. It's just that the creationists' faith is so strong, they'll distort data to fit their literal view of Genesis.
  2. The ark had baby dinosaurs?: The creationists I met had put a remarkable amount of thought into the logistics of Noah's Ark. I bought a book called Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study, which spends 300 pages outlining the engineering. There are chapters on the ventilation system, on-board exercise for the animals and the myth of explosive manure gases. And how did they fit all those animals on the ark? The head of the museum told me that many of the big ones "“ like the dinosaurs "“ went on when they were younger to save room.
  3. Moderation is a relative term: I thought that creationism was about as far to the literal fringe as I could go. Not so. Consider this: When I was at the Creation Museum, I met their resident astrophysicist.

    He told me about a group of people called Biblical Astronomers whom he considers an embarrassment to the creationist movement.

    The Biblical Astronomers believe the earth is the center of the universe and remains stationary because it says in Psalm 93:1 that the earth "shall never be moved." The mainstream creationists believe the earth is young "“ but it does revolve around the sun.

  4. There is an unexpected beauty and dignity in the creationist worldview. I'll never abandon evolution "“ even if they found Noah's page-a-day calendar on a pristinely preserved ark. But I did a thought experiment one day: I imagined what it would be like to be a creationist. I put myself in the mind of someone who believes the earth was formed 6000 years ago.And it was an amazing experience. Most notably, I felt more connected. If everyone on earth is descended from two identifiable people "“ Adam and Eve "“ then the "family of man" isn't just a vague cliche. It's true. The guy who sells me bananas at the deli on 81st street "“ he's my cousin. The creationist mindset made me feel closer to my fellow humans. It made me want to invite strangers over to dinner. My goal is to keep that "˜we're-all-family' mindset without having to adopt the six-day-creation POV.
  5. Inherit the Wind is kinda unfair to creationists. I heard this time and again from the creationists I met. They said the famous play-turned-Spencer-Tracy movie portrayed them unfairly. I rented it. And I have to say, they've got a point.William Jennings Bryan "“ a deeply religious three-time Democratic presidential nominee who was the prosecuting attorney for the anti-evolution folks "“ was turned into a total buffoon named Matthew Harrison Brady, played by Frederic March. Brady is a pot-bellied glutton. In one scene, he's gorging on fried chicken out of a basket"¦in the courtroom. The film recreates the famous showdown over the Bible between the Bryan and the brilliant Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow. It's a good scene. But if you read the court transcript, it was actually a more interesting and subtle confrontation.

For instance, here's the dialogue from the movie:

Darrow: Do you believe every word of the Bible is true?
Bryan: Yes. Every word is literally true.
And here's the corresponding real exchange:

Darrow: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?
Bryan: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there. Some of the Bible is given illustratively; for instance, "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.

Like creationists today, he admits there is some figurative language in the Bible, even if most of it should be taken as literally true. Yes, I know there's artistic license and all that. But it does seem odd to me that this movie "“ which is supposed to be a champion for the truth "“ distorted the truth so much. Why do that? Especially when you have reality on your side.

Like this column? Check out AJ's terrific posts on Biblical Trivia and on hanging out with the Amish. Or just buy his new book here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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