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More Trivia from the 49th State

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I'm back with more facts from the great state of Alaska. In case you missed it, check out part 1 here.

Greater than Grand

Canyon enthusiasts will undoubtedly seek out Arizona's Grand Canyon when looking for an impressive crack in the land. But they may be better off in the Alaska Range, where Ruth Glacier has carved out the Great Gorge. Measurements that include the ice of the glacier, which fills the bottom of the gorge, show it to be almost 9,000 feet deep, making it deeper than the Grand Canyon, where the depth ranges from 5,000 to 8,000 feet. Still, the Grand Canyon is almost 10 times wider than the Great Gorge.

The Idita-detour

Perhaps Alaska is best known for the Iditarod, the annual sled dog race across more than 1,150 miles of wintry wilderness. The route was originally run out of necessity- it was used to relay mail and supplies from coastal towns to the interior mining sites, including a 1925 run led by Balto that delivered much needed medicine to quell a diphtheria epidemic in Nome.

However, the race's traditional route has been changing in recent years thanks to global warming. The race opens with a ceremonial start in Anchorage, followed by the official restart in Wasilla. In 2003, though, the Anchorage start had to be moved to Fairbanks due to warm weather and an embarrassing lack of snow. Then, in 2008, the official restart was moved north to Willow, also due to warm weather.

Not-So-Good Friday

earthquake 2.jpgOn March 27, 1964, Alaska experienced the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America, which registered a 9.2 on the Richter Scale and lasted between three and four minutes (it originally registered between 8.4 and 8.6, but the number was later adjusted). The Good Friday Earthquake was followed by a massive tsunami that claimed 113 lives, on top of the 15 who died during the earthquake. There was extensive damage to buildings in Anchorage and in other cities, but it wasn't just manmade structures that took the brunt. An area of land around Kodiak was raised, in some places as high as 40 feet, and an area in the Turnagain arm dropped 8 feet, requiring the highway to be rebuilt. The earthquake and tsunami were felt as far away as California and Hawaii.

One Big Test

As if the earthquake wasn't enough seismic activity for Alaska, the government decided to generate some man-made rumbles. The United States Atomic Energy Commission designated Amchitka, an Aleutian island, an underground test site. The testing started with the 80 kiloton Long Shot in 1965, then the 1-megaton Milrow in 1969. Those tests were controversial, with people fearing they would do damage to the wildlife and might cause another earthquake, but the protests couldn't stop the third and final test. In 1971, they tested Cannikin, with a blast just under 5 megatons. Cannikin was the largest underground weapon test by the United States, as well as the first one conducted under the new regulations put forth by 1969's National Environmental Policy Act. The blast registered a 7.0 on the Richter scale and tectonic events went on for the next two weeks, although no grand-scale earthquakes or tsunamis.

A schoolboy, the Great Bear and a state flag

ak-flag.gifAlaska had an official flag long before it became a state, thanks to a 13-year-old. In 1926, territorial governor George Parks, seeing the flags of the other 48 states, decided that Alaska ought to have one of its own. So he created a contest for schoolchildren to design the new flag. The winner, John Ben "Benny" Benson, was a seventh-grader from Seward, who won for his idea of putting the Big Dipper and North Star on a field of blue. Benson explained his concept in a paragraph on the back of his entry:

"The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska Flower. The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly of the union. The dipper is for the Great Bear symbolizing strength."

As a reward for designing the flag, Benson won a $1,000 scholarship and an engraved watch, not to mention immortality (he has a memorial along the Seward highway). His win was considered especially significant because he was part Native Alaskan (his mother was Aleut and Russian).

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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]