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An Ache for the Distance

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I've been trying to figure out whether or not to take a trip to Australia next Spring. There are a million reasons not to: money, the time it'll take away from things that needed to be tended to at home, etc. There's only one thing written in the imaginary "pros" column of this internal debate: that it's somehow important to go, to see the world whenever and however I can. A condition that is generally referred to as "wanderlust," I suppose, which would explain why I can spend hours Google-Earthing my way 'round the globe and have built an impressive collection of Lonely Planet travel guides for places I've never been.

Merriam-Webster isn't very helpful: wanderlust is a "strong longing for or impulse toward wandering," it reports. (Right.) Slightly more interesting, the dictionary claims it's a word borrowed from German around the turn of the last century -- wandern literally means "to hike" -- though wanderlust has become obsolete in its native tongue and a more contemporary term is Fernweh, which translates loosely to "an ache for the distance."

Etymology is one thing, but where does the impulse actually come from? In Bruce Chatwin's book Anatomy of Restlessness, he writes "that human beings possess a migratory instinct that drives them 'to walk long distances through the seasons.'" I can buy that; it partially explains why humans had spread themselves across nearly every corner of the globe save New Zealand by around 2,000 years ago. (Chatwin goes on to argue that wanderlust is "an instinct inherited from [our] herdsmen ancestors that ''when warped in conditions of settlement'' found ''outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new" -- which I'm not so sure about.)

What's certain is that wanderlust inspires people to do strange things. A New York Times headline from 1910 blares "Girl Blames Wanderlust: Young Woman Found in Boy's Clothes," and tells the strange tale of a girl afflicted by wanderlust who dons male clothing to make unfettered travel possible: "Miss Tillson has wandered around in boy's clothing before. Every now and then she gets what her friends describe as "wanderlust," and leaves home for a while. Once before, while under the influence of the "wanderlust," she stayed away from home two months, and, posing as a boy, worked on a farm near Chester, NY. On another trip she worked as a waitress in New York. Still another time she was picked up by the police at Nyack ... also dressed as a boy." As difficult as turn-of-the-century travel must've been, it had to be ten times harder for women; I can sympathize with her urge to escape not just the bonds of place, but of sex as well.

2451849839_37c4fdf424.jpgAnother old Times article -- this one from 1912 -- resonates with me as well: "Adopted Son Gets Wanderlust After Gift of Eyeglasses." How poetic is that? The article quotes the eight-year-old's adopted father, who reports that the glasses he bought for the boy some weeks prior "have aroused a sort of wanderlust in the youngster's brain, because the boy has left home four times since the glasses were got for him ... he had been [found] sleeping in an abandoned doghouse" in Yonkers. Maybe that's really what's at the root of all wanderlust: really seeing the world. (Not to get overly profound or anything.) There's something about the workaday routine that dulls one's sight; when you're burned out you never feel really inclined to travel, because you're so concentrated on whatever little tasks are at hand that you're not fully conscious of the larger world -- and if you don't see it, how can you want to go there?

Where do you want to wander?

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]