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Wikipedia for Schools

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The Wikipedia for Schools project is an effort to distill the vast content of Wikipedia onto one DVD. This single-DVD version is very portable, and can be used in schools worldwide, though its focus on articles written in English probably limits its global appeal. The project focuses on children, and what's most interesting (and appropriate) for them in a school environment; project volunteers selected articles for quality and appropriateness, then manually reviewed them for content (avoiding "adult" topics and obvious vandalism). But what happens when Wikipedia is compressed like this? Is it really a useful encyclopedia when it's whittled down to only 5,500 articles (versus the 2.5 million plus available online in English)?

Well, have a look for yourself. The project includes both a Title Word Index and the aforelinked Visual Subject Index. As a test, I thought of a few potential study topics and then tried to find them on the Wikipedia for Schools site. Here are the results:

Afghanistan

There's a lot going on in Afghanistan these days. A student could do a paper on the country's history, the current war, its relationship with Pakistan, influence of drugs on the economy, and so on. So let's see what we can find on the country. Starting with the visual index I wasn't sure whether to choose Geography or Countries, but I went with the latter. From there I selected Asia, and Afghanistan. The article is quite good -- it's truly an encyclopedia-quality entry on the country, with tons of detailed information, images, and specific data. All the topics I mentioned above are at least mentioned, and there's certainly enough information for a complete school report on the country. So that's one win.

Space Shuttle: Challenger

I'm a student of disasters, so I wanted to see whether Challenger ranked highly enough to be included in the selection. I wasn't sure where to find this in the visual index -- is it under History, Design and Technology, Science, or what? So I turned to the title word index and chose "S" and "p" to form a search beginning with "Sp" (for Space Shuttle). Sure enough, entries entitled Space Shuttle Challenger and Space Shuttle Challenger disaster were right there. The articles are excellent, particularly the one covering the disaster in detail. This is college-level material.

Sarah Palin/Joe Biden

Since the Wikipedia for Schools selection requires a manual effort to select and review articles, I wondered whether recently-prominent people would make the cut. Is it possible to get relevant information on Vice Presidential picks (particularly Sarah Palin, who wasn't nationally known until quite recently) from this encyclopedia, or would we have to go online? As it turns out, the online source is clearly better for these people. Palin isn't mentioned at all in the Wikipedia for Schools selection (at least, according to a Google Search over the selection). Biden is mentioned six times but doesn't merit his own article. The most prominent mentions of Biden come in the articles on Barack Obama and the US Senate in a section about age qualifications for joining the senate (Biden had just turned 30 when he was sworn in). So I suppose the online version of Wikipedia is still necessary for some research topics. (For the record, the online articles on Palin and Biden are stunningly detailed.)

So the Wikipedia for Schools project is definitely useful, and its price (zero dollars) makes it a serious competitor to traditional encyclopedias. I can see it being of particular interest to schools (and homes) that lack internet access, or in which parents are particularly worried about their kids coming across inappropriate content. While it's possible that some inappropriate content has found its way into the selection, it's far less likely that a kid would find it there than on the equivalent live Wikipedia article on the web.

One major concern is article quality and accuracy. Wikipedia's superpower is the fact that it's constantly updated; taking a static snapshot means that articles are frozen and cannot be updated. If a factual inaccuracy exists in the selection, it may not be fixed for up to a year (when the next full selection is released), though the selection is updated as needed if major errors or vandalism are found. Having said that, to some extent the same problem exists for traditional encyclopedias -- and they aren't free (though they are professionally edited and, one hopes, thoroughly fact-checked). So the question there seems to boil down to whether the crowd of editors at Wikipedia does a "good enough" job at editing and fact-checking to compete with professionals.

A final failing I see in the selection is its lack of citations and references; they were excluded because volunteers couldn't verify each of them. I'd prefer that students had access to the references and could check them out themselves -- this process is, after all, one of the core functions of academic research!

You can browse Wikipedia for Schools online, or download the whole thing via BitTorrent. (If you're not familiar with BitTorrent, read the bit on downloading in the site's press release.)

Have you used Wikipedia for Schools? Do you have an idea for how this selection could be used? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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