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Made in America: The world's fastest electric car

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Some of you who've been with us from the beginning might recall Mangesh's post a couple years back about Tesla's high-end electric sports car, made in Silicon Valley. In the post, Mango wrote mental_floss' favorite inventor Nikola Tesla, who famously dreamed up AC current amongst a million other things, and inspired the names for the rock bands Tesla and AC/DC (or at least the first-half of the name AC/DC), now has a ridiculously cool electric car named for him"¦[Tesla] even plans on releasing a family sedan by 2008.

And while the sedan is still a couple years off, the Roadster, which Mangesh referred to, is not only selling pretty well (for a vehicle with a base sticker price that's more than $100K), but showrooms are slowly starting to open outside Silicon Valley. One opened in L.A. not too long ago and I had the privilege of interviewing the guy who runs it, Jeremy Snyder. So if you're into really fast cars, really expensive cars, or just environmentally friendly cars, read on for the lowdown on Tesla, right from the manager's mouth.

DI: So where exactly is Tesla based?

JS: San Carlos, California, though the cars are assembled in Menlo Park.

DI: The parts are made here too?

JS: The final assembly is here in California. We're an American car company. While the parts are from all over the world, the battery pack, which is a big part of the car, is made here in California.

DI: And how many different models are there at the moment?

JS: Just the Roadster right now, which is our flagship model. But we've got a four-door, five-passenger sedan coming out called Model S, which will be available in a couple years.

DI: So let's talk about the Roadster. What's all the hubbub?

JS: It's a very important car because it's 100% electric. We wanted to enter the market place and shatter any preconceived notions. Efficiency and performance need not be mutually exclusive. The car was designed with three principles in mind: Great design, ultra-high performance, while being the most efficient car in the world. It does 0-60 in 3.9 seconds, has a range of 244 miles per charge, charges in 3-4 hours, and costs about two cents per mile to operate.

DI: Fantastic. And all that will cost us how much?

JS: $109,000 base price, fully loaded is about $125K.

DI: What kind of extras are we talking about?

JS: Premium leather interior, carbon-fiber hard top, and a high-powered connector, which is installed in your home, which allows you to charge in 3-4 hours.

DI: How would people charge it otherwise?

JS: There's an extension cord that you can plug into any standard 110 outlet.

DI: How long does it take to charge with the cord?

JS: At half-charge, it will take overnight to recharge. If you're totally empty, it could take a lot longer than that.

DI: So how many of these babies have you sold to date?

JS: More than 1,300.

DI: Let's talk about the motor. Is it as silent as my little hybrid when I cruise to a stop?

JS: Well the electric motor is a helluva lot bigger than in a Prius, so you hear a very pleasant turbine-type sound when you're accelerating hard. But when you're accelerating at a slow pace, it's completely silent.

DI: Who's the engineer behind it?

JS: J.B. Strobel. He's our chief technology officer. He invented the battery pack, which is liquid-cooled, which allows the car to exist as it does. The power-electronics, the battery technology and the motor work in harmony, and that's what gives the car it's high-performance and range.

DI: What do you drive?

JS: A Tesla.

DI: Really? To and from work?

JS: Yeah. Either my Tesla or my bicycle.

DI: Do you get a lot of people stopping you in supermarket parking lots with questions?

JS: Of course. Yeah.

DI: You must be sick of that by now.

JS: Not at all. It's a very special car, and a very important one.
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DI: Let's talk about maintenance. What are we talking?

JS: Well, there are no oil changes because there's no oil in the car. So it's essentially firmware updates, suspension, brakes, tires, the cooling system that cools the batteries, which is very important and that's about it. All in all it's about a six-hour service. We're opening service centers in New York City, Miami, Chicago, D.C., and Seattle over the next 12 months. It's only a once-a-year maintenance program, but this way they won't have to ship the car back to us here.

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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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