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6 Massive Earth Moving Projects

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Each year humans move around 7 gigatons of earth. Some projects result in vast improvements for human living; others, not so much.

The Panama Canal

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The idea of cutting a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Panama was first proposed in 1524, with plans drawn up by 1529. Various nations considered the idea, but for reasons of war, international politics, or the huge expense, the project was postponed for nearly four centuries. A French company worked on the canal from 1881 to 188, and the Americans finished it between 1904 and 1914. The French had excavated 30 million cubic yards of earth, and the Americans dug another 238 million. The total amount of earth moved was four times the original estimate. However, using the canal saved thousands of miles and months of travel time by ship for voyages between the east and west coasts of North America.

The Three Gorges Dam

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The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China is slated to be the largest hydroelectric project on earth when it becomes fully operational in 2011. Plans were first offered in 1914, but revolution, wars, and political instability delayed construction until 1994. The massive project has been criticized internationally for the displacement of 1.5 million people who lived where the new lake is, and for the environmental disruption which is believed to have already led to the extinction of at least one species, the Baiji or Yangtze River Dolphin. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam moved about 13,400,000 cubic  yards of earth.

New York City Subway System

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The first section of the New York City subway opened in 1904. Construction has continued ever since, with new lines, repairs, and replacement lines under constant construction. On most lines, the street is torn up to dig the tunnel, then the road is replaced. Tunnel-boring technology is necessary for the deeper lines, lines through rock, and those that cross under the East River. The system is now 722 miles long. It's difficult to estimate the volume of the underground sections, but in 1904 when the very first lines were opened, 3.5 million cubic yards of earth and rock had been removed.

Mountaintop Removal

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The latest innovation in coal mining in the Appalachians is mountaintop removal, a method that exposes coal seams faster and more cheaply than deep mining or strip mining. Mountaintops are blasted away, and up to 250 million cubic yards of earth and rock are leveled into the surrounding valleys. The effects on the local environment can be devastating.

Boston's Big Dig

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The Big Dig is officially named the Central Artery/Tunnel Project in Boston. It's a 3.5 mile tunnel to route vehicle traffic underneath the city. Construction began in 1991 and sections of the tunnel were opened between 2003 and 2006. The initial cost of the project was estimated to be $2.8 billion, but the final cost was close to $15 billion. Charges of corruption, inadequate materials, and a fatal collapse accompanied the project. The completed tunnel saw the excavation of 16 million cubic yards of earth.

The Delta Works

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The Dutch have been building dikes to hold back the ocean for over 2,000 years. Today, 27% of The Netherlands is below sea level. When the sea encroaches, water is pumped back out, traditionally with windmill power, and in modern times with diesel and electric pumps. The Delta project was launched as a reaction to the North Sea Flood of 1953 that killed 1,836 people. It consisted of raising the height of 10,250 miles of dikes to levels that would protect the country from unexpectedly high sea floods. Construction of the original plan was completed in 1997. Statistics are hard to pin down because the Delta Works are seen as a series of projects, but it's been said that millions and millions of cubic feet of earth have been moved, with more added every year as land reclamation and improvement projects continue.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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