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Strange Geographies: On Jumping Out of Airplanes

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There is a town on the South Island of New Zealand where jumping out of an airplane is considered normal behavior, and doing so will raise nary an eyebrow. While my wife and I were in country last week, we spent three days in the adrenaline-fueled hamlet of Queenstown, where if skydiving doesn't tickle your fancy you can bike down a mountain from a helicopter, rappel down a waterfall, climb any number of steep rock faces, take the controls of a small aircraft for twenty minutes ("absolutely no experience necessary!") or participate any other number of "x-treme" activities which all claim to let you feel the icy hand of death on your shoulder without actually shuffling you off this mortal coil.

In retrospect, I probably never would've skydived anywhere else; the fact that travelers in New Zealand (well, not all of them) skydive before tea and a nap on Sunday and seem otherwise sane and slip the fact that they jump out of planes so casually into their conversations (girl in a backpackers' hostel: "how was your skydive today?" other girl: "fine, not as good as yesterday though") slowly lulls you into thinking that this is a relatively safe, everyday activity.

But even so lulled, I couldn't quite bring myself to book the skydiving days in advance, as we had done most of our other, saner activities. I would've dreaded it the whole trip. Instead, it all came about on a day I had convinced myself was going to be my quiet one, after nearly two weeks of constant activity and more than 2,000 miles logged driving around the country. I could feel my rope beginning to fray a bit; maybe I was starting to come down with something. I'll just take a drive, I told myself -- 45 minutes north of Queenstown is an impossibly beautiful little village called Glenorchy, which sounded like a pleasant, low-key day trip while my wife did some shopping and climbed outdoors (Not me, I said. I hate heights.)

Glenorchy was pretty as a postcard, but pretty dull, as well. I pulled into a cafe to get an espresso (a "short black," it's called in NZ), and waiting in line in front of me was a woman in a "Skydive NZ" jumper. I struck up a conversation. "Are you throwing people out of airplanes today?" I asked, as casually as I could. "We are indeed!" she replied, smiling.

She seemed so nice. She had a little dog with her, a Jack Russell, and she was buying a muffin. Feeling a little surge of madness, I said "How do I sign up?" "I'm going to the airfield right now," she said. "Just follow me!"

It was that simple. I drove behind her for a few blocks and we were there, at a simple grass airstrip with a trailer for a "control tower," where a few twentysomethings were lounging outside on picnic tables. She took me inside, where I signed a ridiculously brief waiver. (It's nearly impossible to sue for damages in NZ anyway.) I told her I had done this on a whim, and suggested that since no one knew where I was or what I was doing, perhaps I should write my wife's name and that of our hotel on the back of the waiver. "In case of whatever," I explained. "Good idea," she said. Then I asked her when she wanted me to pay. "After," she said, which I found slightly comforting. She wrote my name on a whiteboard -- right at the top, first to jump -- and I went outside to wait for further instructions.

I met a lanky American guy, who paused his iPod to talk to me. He had been in New Zealand for six months, taking advantage of the kiwis' "working holiday" program, in which visitors from relatively affluent countries are issued yearlong New Zealand visas that allow them to work, ostensibly to finance their ongoing vacations with occasional stints waiting tables or working at hostels. Or in this guy's case, jumping out of planes for a living. He was the skydive photographer, which meant he'd be jumping out of the airplane a few moments before me, with a camera strapped to his helmet and a remote shutter trigger in his mouth, which he could use to take pictures during freefall, with just the flick of his tongue. I wanted to tell him he was insane for choosing this as his job abroad, but instead we talked about Los Angeles, where I'm from. "My car's parked there," he said. "I hope it's OK." (Apparently he was gambling with more than just his life.) Then he told me that LA County boasts "two of the world's best drop zones," a fact I had been blissfully unaware of; unlike New Zealand, extreme sports aren't my town's main industry.

A Brazilian guy named CJ appeared and shook my hand. "I'll be your tandem partner today," he said, and took me to get suited up. It was pretty simple: I pulled a jumpsuit on over my clothes, donned a funny little hat, and he gave me a fanny pack. "What's in here?" I asked him. "Life jacket," he said. "In case we go into the lake." Then he smiled. "But don't worry, I don't feel like getting wet today." A Japanese kid walked up to us. "You jumping too?" CJ asked him. The kid nodded, though it was clear he didn't speak much English. "How high are you going?" CJ said. (You could jump from 9,000, 12,000 or 15,000 feet, depending on how much you wanted to spend.) The kid just pointed at the sky. "Top," he said. "Top."

Six or seven of us squeezed into a tiny plane. There were no seats, just two low benches, and no belts. Two of us were paying to jump, two were professional tandem partners (CJ for me, someone else for the Japanese kid), one was my photographer, and two were jumping solo "just for fun," which I took to mean that they were hitching a free ride, because they had their own equipment and were jumping solo, without jumpmasters tandemed to them. It was cramped -- CJ and I sat on the floor, our shoulders pressed against what seemed like an awfully flimsy sliding door. The plane rumbled to life, bounced down the grass airstrip and we were airborne.

By now I was almost used to this: at this point in my New Zealand trip, I had taken several small plane flights and a helicopter (often the best way to experience the remote backcountry), the only difference being that I was sitting on the floor with no seatbelt pressed against a door that, in a few minutes, was going to slide open.

We started climbing. CJ was keeping an eye on what looked like a big funny watch strapped to his wrist, but was actually an altimeter. It looked like we were really high. "Only 2,000 feet," CJ reassured me. We climbed further. Everyone on the plane got quiet, partly because the engine noise was deafening, and partly because this was the scariest part of the experience, even for skydiving veterans -- if you don't get a few butterflies in your stomach right before jumping out of a rickety airplane, what's the point?

I realized I wasn't yet strapped to CJ, who was wearing the parachute. Seemingly on cue, he reached around my midsection and clipped two lockable carabiners to straps on my jumpsuit I hadn't noticed before, then pulled the straps so tight I couldn't breathe for a second. "Too tight?" he asked. I glanced out the window, and saw the imposing mountains that ringed Glenorchy well below us. "Tight is good," I said. My photographer aimed his camera-helmet out the window and snapped this picture:

I put on a pair of flimsy goggles. CJ slid the door open. The wind rushed in and I tried not to look out. The two solo divers squeezed past me. "See you on the ground!" I said, trying to sound calm. They smiled at me, then jumped:

My heart was beating like crazy. Up to this point I had been trying to do some Zen deep-breathing, but that went out the window with the first jumpers. Now I was just trying not to hyperventilate. Then my photographer squeezed past and jumped, and CJ shouted "put your legs out and fold your arms over your chest!" I was on autopilot. I stuck my legs out of the plane. He grabbed onto the inside of the plane and counted down: "Three, two, one!" There is a picture of this moment, right before he propelled us into the void, but it is far to embarrassing to post. I look like I've just taken a bite of a lemon: my eyes are squeezed shut and my lips are pursed, as if I was trying to close myself off to the reality of what was happening.

Then he pushed off and we were falling, and the noisy plane engine disappeared above us, and for a moment I thought I would die:

... but then I relaxed. CJ tapped me on the head and shouted "put your arms out, like a bird!" I did, and suddenly we felt almost buoyant, the wind rushing past us at an impossible speed but somehow lofting us as well. I started looking around: everywhere was beautiful, and the ground didn't seem to be getting closer to us very quickly. So this is what all the fuss is about, I thought. Then the photographer appeared, somehow, right in front of me. It seemed like he could fly. He took some photos:

That rope coming off our backs is attached to a very small parachute, called a drogue. When you jump tandem, you're falling faster than if you jump solo; the drogue slows you down to "normal" freefall. A few moments later, there was a great shock and I felt myself being pulled upward as our parachute opened:

... and then we were floating down at a much more relaxed pace. The wind no longer roared, and we started talking. I don't even remember what we talked about; it was small talk, and I was too busy looking around. Freefall from 12,000 feet had lasted about 45 seconds, and after two minutes of parachute drop, we were close to the landing strip again. (Happily, we wouldn't need those life jackets after all.) I saw the plane we had jumped from landing below us, and wondered how it had gotten there so fast. We landed, sliding horizontally along the ground on our bums as the parachute collapsed behind us:

"Thanks," I said. "That was great!" CJ shook my hand, unhooked us, and I went to take off my jumpsuit. There was another planeload of jumpers to attend to, and he had other responsibilities. He would do this 12 more times that day.

I realized that the wind, despite my goggles, had blown out one of my contact lenses. I drove back to Queenstown with only one good eye -- in retrospect, probably the most dangerous thing I did that day.

You can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]