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The Un-funnest Vacation in Europe

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Let's say you're on vacation in the Lithuanian countryside. Dad suggests that your family stop at a nearby historical attraction, Išgyvenimo Drama, an interactive experience which claims to transport visitors back to the heady Cold War days of 1984. Approaching it, you see that the whole thing is housed in a disused Soviet bunker, and start to get a queasy feeling in your stomach. A soldier appears and starts barking orders at you. You don't know what he's saying, but his intent is clear: On your knees! You drop, suddenly sure that you're in for (and hoping you'll survive) Eastern Europe's strangest tourist attraction: the Survival Drama, in which you get to become a Soviet citizen circa 1984 for roughly three hours.

It was an idea hatched by a few enterprising Lithuanians, who saw a perfectly good bunker going to waste and decided to put it to good use. Built in 1980, in its past life it protected a key TV transmitter and housed Soviet troops. The Red Army may have been long gone, but at 4,000 square meters and 5 meters deep, the bunker wasn't going anywhere.

According to Scribol:

Tourists pay 120 LTL ($US 220) each to step back into 1984 as a temporary USSR citizen for 2.5 hours. On entry, all belongings, including money, cameras and phones, are handed over and under the watchful eye of guards and alsatians, tourists change into threadbare Soviet coats and are herded through the bunker.

Experiences include watching TV programs from 1984, wearing gas masks, learning the Soviet anthem under duress, eating typical Soviet food (with genuine Soviet tableware) and even undergoing a concentration-camp-style interrogation and medical check.

The Soviet Bunker is not a theme park for the faint-hearted; all of the actors involved in the project were originally in the Soviet army and some were authentic interrogators. However, there are performances tailored specifically for school groups so they know when to cool it, too. Before heading back into the real world, participants are treated to a shot of vodka. They leave with a better understanding of life under Soviet occupation and, no doubt, a new respect for their elders' past.


Not far away from Vilnius, in the woods, there is a secret two-level underground maze spread over 3,000 square meters in a 2 ha closed territory. Here you can avail of the opportunity to be transferred to the past and become a citizen of a totalitarian state.


Upon arrival you will be met by guards with dogs.


Having waved goodbye to your belongings, currency, cameras and mobile phones, you will put on a Soviet threadbare coat and dive into the life of a USSR citizen, full of tension and social peculiarities.


You'll get used to wearing a gas mask.


You'll be interrogated in a KGB office.


You'll dance to the music of those times and will make a Soviet dinner yourself.


Leaving the bunker you will receive a special certificate and a unique present from the Soviet times.

Images courtesy of Azillphotos

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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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