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5 Things You Didn't Know About the NYC Subway (not relating to that mysterious smell)

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by Tess Baldwin, Hunter College

Ah, public transportation. In the wake of skyrocketing oil prices, it has become a welcome alternative for people across the world. New York City's subway system registers as one of the largest and most complex. However, we all have heard horror stories of the underground world. Thefts, incredible crushes during rush hours, leaky roofs, train cars without air conditioning... the list can go on forever. But rest assured, the NYC subway system has tricks up its winding, extensive sleeve, tricks that can make even the most hardened commuters, sweaty, tired and just a bit uncomfortable from the person across the train staring at them, appreciate the uniqueness of the subway.

1. Connecticut Turnpike Connection

tokenOne of the lasting public images of the New York Subway is it's icon token. The tokens were first introduced in 1953. The tokens were adopted due to the fare increase to fifteen cents (the fare had remained at five cents for 44 years, almost bankrupting the subway system in the progress); the fare collection machines at the time couldn't handle both a nickel and a dime. However, people were determined to avoid paying the fare. Tokens were also used for turnpikes, and it just so happened that their tokens from the 1980s fit perfectly, and fooled the fare machines. It is thought that this error occurred because the Connecticut Turnpike tokens and the New York Subway tokens were made by the same manufacturer. This virtual "token war" continued for a few years, until Connecticut took out their tolls. The subway system phased out tokens in 2003.

2. Manhattan to Manhattan

One of the oddest things about the system can be seen when you are riding the 1 train, which goes from the southernmost tip of Manhattan to near the end of The Bronx. In its journey, it goes over the Harlem River, but here is where one of New York's greatest idiosyncrasies can be seen: this connection features the only place in New York where you can travel from a Manhattan station over a bridge and water to another Manhattan station. The station on the mainland is on ground that was once part of Manhattan. In the early 20th Century, a ship canal was built, leaving this area an island, surrounded by the river and the ship canal. When the river was filled in, the area became a part of the mainland and, as one would believe, The Bronx. However, the residents campaigned to remain under Manhattan's jurisdiction, and this area is today considered politically Manhattan. The next stop on the northbound train, six blocks away, is contained in The Bronx.

3. Media! Media!

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The original architects of the subway loathed advertising and countless people have had much to say on the subject in the hundred-plus years since. Advertising is seen in every station and is featured in the cars. However, the subway system has been represented in all types of media, from "Take the A Train" and the famous "Subway Series", to backgrounds on Sesame Street and, most recently, influencing the new Grand Theft Auto game. In can be argued that almost any movie taking place in New York will involve the subway in some way - it is that much a part of the lifeline of New York City. If a movie is being filmed, crews usually use an abandoned station (of which there are many to choose from in the system). The famous Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3 is currently being remade and features stars such as Denzel Washington, John Travolta and James Gandolfini. A popular staple in train cars for 30 years were the Miss Subways, women who graced placards with their images as a form of advertising. Interestingly, the program featured women of all backgrounds, artfully reflecting the diversity of the city from the 1940s to the 1970s. The new incarnation, Ms. Subways, coincided with the centennial of the subway in 2004, although it only lasted one year.

4. Right out of 1904

There are 468 stations in the system, but several more have slipped beneath the radar, glimpsed only through the windows of a passing train or by noting grates, tiles or columns that could indicate where a station used to be. Several stations have abandoned platforms or areas, which are there for all to see. The subway, which was once comprised of three separate systems, features a few relics of the past for each system. People often wonder about the ghost stations, and why they were abandoned. Some, such as the once-heralded "crown jewel" of the original system, the City Hall Station, were closed because of low passenger volume, while others were closed because of close proximity to other stations (usually due to platform lengthening when longer train cars were needed). There are a few that are just mysteries, such as the lower level of the 42nd St. Station, shrouded in speculation. Few people have seen an abandoned station up close, but they, like any other forbidden entity, draw attention nonetheless.

5. Art Cards

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To an untrained eye, the subway stations themselves are just places to wait for the train, but they are awash with art and, often, music. There are many unique stations within the system. Many stations feature art from well-known artists, thanks to the Arts for Transit program that helps make the commute more colorful. In the system, you can find flowers, birds, fossils, eyes and even Alice in Wonderland. There are also posters from this program in the subway cars, appropriately known as art cards. In addition, many of the original stations feature beautiful tiling and plaques, put in place so that the stations would be light and airy and would encourage people to travel underground and relieve surface traffic. The Arts for Transit program also sponsors a music program, which features some really talented musicians who make the subway a more pleasant place to be.

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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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