The Quick 10: 10 Uninhabited Spots in the U.S.

Maybe you've noticed... there are a lot of people in the United States. But even with a population of 304,260,083 (so says the U.S. Census Bureau's Population Clock as of 1:30 p.m.), there are still some places that have been relatively untouched. You might find a radio tower or an airstrip, but no inhabitants. Here are a few of them.

10 Uninhabited Spots in the U.S.

1. Baker Island. Baker Island is southwest of Honolulu and has been a U.S. territory since 1857. It's only about 405 acres and access is pretty much restricted to educators and scientists. Four people used to live there but were evacuated during WWII.

2. Howland Island. Howland is about halfway between the U.S. and Australia and is one of the places Amelia Earhart was supposed to land when she disappeared (some theories say that she did, in fact, land there). Howland is about 455 acres and was briefly colonized by a military school in Hawaii in 1935. Two of the four "colonists" were killed by a Japanese air attack in 1941.

3. Jarvis Island. This tiny plot of land is just under three square miles, so it makes sense that no one has tried to move in. Well, that's not exactly true. "Millersville" was essentially some guys in pup tents, but when a Japanese submarine surfaced near the island and fired on them, they evacuated. No one was hurt, though.

4. The Johnston Atoll. In 1963, Johnson Island was declared a place to conduct nuclear testing if necessary. In 1993, though, it was deemed as a place to store and destroy chemical weapons. No one really lives there, but military personnel come and go.

5. Kingman Reef. Most of Kingman Reef is underwater so it's logical that it remains uninhabited. It used to be called "Danger Reef", which I enjoy more. It's so small and so barely above water that the highest point on the reef is still wet 99 percent of the time.

6. Petrel Islands. Also known as the Bajo Nuevo Bank, the Petrel Islands were re-discovered in 1660 by pirate John Glover. They had been noted on some Dutch maps prior to that but were unclaimed. Currently, lots of lobster fishermen spend time there. It does have a lighthouse, but that's about it.

7. Serranilla Bank. The Serranilla Bank can be found on Spanish maps as old as 1510. It's a little over 200 miles northeast of Nicaragua. Who owns it is actually questionable - in 1981, the United States gave several of the Guano Islands (Islands acquired by the U.S. in 1879) to Colombia, but never specifically named Serranilla. Colombia considers it theirs, though.

8. Midway Atoll. You probably know Midway as the location of the Battle of Midway during WWII. Before that, though, it was a tourist attraction for the extremely weathly. The China Clipper, an air boat run by PanAm, was in operation from 1935 to 1941. Only rich people could afford the trip, though, because a flight on the China Clipper cost more than three times the annual salary of the average American at the time. It was a Naval Air Station for a while but was downgraded to a Naval Air Facility in 1978. It was closed in 1993 and the last personnel left in 1997. As of March, the island has been approved for ecotours and studies.

9. Navassa Island. This one is also a little questionable - although the U.S. had claimed it, some documents show that Haiti claimed the land in 1801 or earlier. It's only about two square miles and is about 90 miles south of Guantanamo Bay. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, a lighthouse was built on Navassa and three people lived there to maintain it. When an automated beacon was installed in 1929, the lighthouse keepers moved out and the island has been uninhabited ever since.

10. Wake Atoll. The Wake Atoll is jointly operated by the U.S. Army and Air Force. Access is very restricted, as you might imagine. Pan American set up a small base there in 1935 to service flights on the U.S.-China route. On December 8, 1941, Wake Island was attacked by 27-plus Japanese bombers. Ninety-eight Americans were gunned down on orders from Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, but the Japanese eventually surrendered. It has no indigenous inhabitants now, although as of 2006 there were about 200 contractors living there.

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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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Stephen Missal
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]