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4 Lost Civilizations (and what might have happened to them)

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I've been to Pompeii, the Italian town that was buried by the 79 CE eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. To see a town that was abandoned so abruptly, coupled with plaster casts of the victims who weren't able to evacuate in time, was positively chilling. I can only imagine that visiting the remains of the four civilizations Nathan Johnson from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside dug up for this story would be equally sad and thought-provoking. Nathan is an Economics major who came to UW-P from the University of Minnesota, making me think he has an affinity for below-zero temperatures. - Stacy Conradt

4 Lost Civilizations
by Nathan Johnson

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1. The Lost Colony of Roanoke

croatoanIn 1585, after receiving a patent from Queen Elizabeth I to colonize America, the inexorable Sir Walter Raleigh sent a group of men to an island called Roanoke, Virginia. These colonists didn't fare very well, had run-ins with Native Americans and quickly ran out of supplies. When none other than Sir Francis Drake landed at Roanoke, they returned to Britain, but not before the ship left 15 of its own men behind at the colony. These men were never heard from again. In 1587, Raleigh sent another group to Roanoke, including 17 women and 9 children. The governor of the colony, John White left immediately for England to get food and other supplies for the colony. Not until 1590 was White able to return to Roanoke Island. When he arrived, no sign of the colonists could be found; all the settlements were dismantled. The only trace of life was the word "Croatoan" carved on a post. The fate of the colonists still remains unknown to this day.

2. The Anasazi

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The Anasazi tribe of the southwestern United States emerged around 1200 B.C., developing an amazing modern culture which included agriculture and the unique multi-story stone structures they built into the sides of canyon walls and lived in. However, late in the 13th century these communities were abandoned, for reasons unknown. Theories include drought, enemy attack, poor sanitation, and environmental collapse, as well as the always popular alien abduction.

3. The Khmer Empire

angkor wat
The largest continuous empire of South East Asia, the Khmer Empire of Cambodia reached its zenith in the early 14th century, centered around the temple complex of Angkor Wat. The city of Angkor itself contained an area bigger than that of New York City. The entire empire was abandoned for unknown reasons in about 1432. Adventurers from Europe began to hear tales of a "mystic city of the gods" and sought out the site of the former empire. Archaeologists continue to uncover the vast ruins from their jungle camouflage.

4. Easter Island

easter island
Also known as Rapa Nui, Easter Island has forever been capturing the imagination with its plethora of moai, or stone carved statues. But the story of the island's inhabitants is a bit less known "“ evidence suggests the island was populated around 1200, probably by Polynesians. It was first discovered by Europeans in 1722, who witnessed a devastated landscape supporting a few thousand emaciated islanders, and were dumbstuck by the gigantic statues and how they could possibly have been made and transported by the islanders. The most likely explanation for the population's decline was the devastation of the island's resources. The extinction of the Easter Island palm meant no more canoes, which spelled disaster for the 63 square mile island.

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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