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5 Island Vacations for the Truly Intrepid, Pt 2

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Dreaming of a remote island where you can really get away from it all? So far away that you may never (be able to) come back? This week, we'll take you on brief tours of five prime vacation non-destinations. Before starting, you might want to fire up Google Earth, just so you'll know to get back home.

The Commander Islands

If you center your Google Earth screen at 54 degrees, 59 minutes north and 166 degrees, 17 minutes east, you'll look down on Bering Island in the Commander archipelago off Kamchatka Peninsula. Although part of Russia, the Commander Islands are geologically an extension of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The gap between the Commanders and the rest of web-stellerzeekoe.JPGthe Aleutians is such, however, that the Aleuts, the indigenous marine hunters of the north Pacific, never made it the islands "“ nor did anyone else until the 1700s. As a result, this little archipelago formed the last redoubt of Steller's Sea Cow, a three ton, 25-foot long, kelp-grazing relative of the manatee. By 1768, 27 years after the islands' discovery by Vitus Bering, these floating blubber balls had been driven into extinctions by rapacious sailors, fur traders and seal hunters.
Times have changed, and now most of the region lies within the Komandorsky Nature Reserve, noted for its vast populations of sea birds and marine mammals (several of Steller's other creatures "“ such as his sea lion, sea eagle, and eider "“ are still there in numbers). The 750 residents of the islands are concentrated in the single settlement of Nikolskoye, which looks none too inviting. Zoom in, setting your pointer at 55 11'42 N and 156 59'38 east, and take at look at this "village's" forlorn setting and industrial-style buildings.

Not a single tree grows in Nikolskoye, or the rest of the archipelago, for that matter. "Bleak" is an apt descriptor. But then so too is "interesting." Check out, for example, the odd, linear feature on Bering Island's northern tip (55 21'47 N; 156 58'02 east). Know what it is? If so, please enlighten the rest of us!

UP NEXT: The Commander Islands (and why you don't want to go there) And if you missed yesterday's post on the Andaman Islands, click here.

Guest Blogstar Martin W. Lewis is lecturer in international history and director of the program in International Relations at Stanford University. He's also one of Mangesh's favorite professors!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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