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Trivia from our 49th State

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I just got back from a vacation in Alaska, which I must recommend to everyone. I spent most of my time exploring the wilderness and looking for bears (three different sightings), but between nature hikes and wildlife cruises I collected some Alaska trivia. Since it's the largest state (by a large margin, as you'll soon learn), it contains a lot of trivia, so keep your eyes peeled for more posts this week.

McKinley or Denali?

Everyone knows Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America. Unless you ask an Alaskan, who'll tell you the tallest peak is Mt. Denali. They're talking about the same thing, though. Natives originally called the mountain Denali, which translates to "The Great One," but American visitors changed the name to McKinley to honor the president. In 1980, when the Denali National Park and Preserve was established, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of the mountain back to Mt. Denali. However, the federal board elected to keep the name as McKinley. Although there is support for a nationwide name change, Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula has been proposing legislation to keep the name as McKinley since 1975, blocking any movement on the issue.

The Invisible Giant

Even though Mt. Denali (or McKinley) is massive, clocking in at more than 20,000 feet tall, most people don't get a chance to see it. It's so tall that clouds are constantly obscuring the peak and even on a sunny day, evaporating snow creates enough cloud cover to block it from being seen from the ground. It is estimated that the peak is only visible 20-30 percent of the time in the summer (I wasn't lucky enough to see more than the base of the mountain).

Frederick Cook and his Fake Peak

frederick cook.jpgCount Frederick Cook as one of those many who never saw the peak of Denali. Cook claimed to have reached the summit of the mountain in 1906 and even published photographs of himself planting a flag at the peak. One problem: he hadn't actually made it. Belmore Brown, a junior climber on Cook's expedition who had remained on the ground to collect plant samples, was suspicious that Cook had made it up and down The Great One in less than a month. He set out to prove that Cook was lying and found a point 19 miles southeast of Denali's summit that matched the photographs Cook had published. After much debate and analysis (and several more expeditions to the same point), it has been established that Cook did falsify his ascent, landing at the spot now known as Fake Peak, which is almost 15,000 feet lower than the peak of Denali.

The Really Great State

In terms of total area, Alaska, with 663,267 square miles, isn't just the largest state- it's larger than the combined areas of the next three largest states: Texas (286,581 square miles), California (163,696 square miles) and Montana (147,042 square miles).

First in Flight

bush plane.jpgThanks to the popularity of bush planes, Alaska has more planes and pilots per capita than any other state. Alaska also technically has the longest runway in the world, since the Richardson Highway, which runs 368 miles from Valdez to Fairbanks, can be designated an emergency landing strip.

The Mountain Marathon (on Mt. Marathon)

MtMarathon.jpgA popular tradition in Alaska is the Seward Mt. Marathon Race, a footrace up and down a 3-mile climb and descent of a Mt. Marathon. According to folklore, the race started when a miner asserted that he could make it up and down the mountain (just over 3,000 feet tall) in less than an hour. Another charged that it was impossible, so the two settled it, naturally, with a race on July 4th. It took the winner 62 minutes to finish, but the idea of the race stuck and, in 1915, it became an official race. It's said to be the second-oldest organized race in America (after the Boston Marathon), but other races have also made this claim. The speeds have improved greatly since the original race- the record is now 43 minutes and 23 seconds.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]