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Namibia: Land of Awesome

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Elaborating on last week's post on the nature of wanderlust, today I have a practical example to share. Here's how wanderlust works. You're minding your own business, and then something lands in front of you -- say, this month's issue of Mental_floss. You flip to the back of the mag and devour a great feature article on Namibia, and you start to feel a funny tickle in your brain. That sounds interesting, says the tickle, which leads you to the internet, where you start looking up Namibia on Wikipedia and a few hours later are looking it up on Kayak (the plane ticket comparison site). Since flights are north of $2,000 apiece, you settle for writing a blog about why it would be awesome to go there. In short, Namibia is a safe and hospitable former German colony (and the birthplace of homo sapiens -- check out the floss article) thinly populated by about two million folk (that's just two per square kilometer), about 2% of which are third- and fourth-generation German. Its physical beauty is so diverse and stunning that Lonely Planet calls it "one of those dreamlike places that make you question whether something so visually orgasmic could actually exist." (How do you really feel, Lonely Planet?) Anyway, let's get specific. Here's what sounds irresistible to me:

The skeleton coast
skeleton1.jpgAside from having geography's coolest name (I'm always attracted to spots with forbidding names like "Furnace Creek" and "The Funeral Mountains"), it's an extremely remote and formidable desert -- one of the world's most arid and inhospitable places -- where the dunes march right up to the edge of the sea, and continue underwater -- creating a region of deadly hidden shallows that has wrecked hundreds of ships along its unwelcoming coastline over the years. The crews' grizzly fate is obvious -- they had survived shipwrecks only to die of burning thirst in the desert. Over time, the shifting sands have encroached onto the sea, and wrecked ships that were once in shallow water are now surrounded by oceans of sand, far from shore, creating a surreal graveyard. Locals call it "the land God made in anger"; Portuguese sailors called it As Areias do Inferno, or Sands of Hell. There aren't a lot of roads through the Skeleton Coast; the best way to explore it is by small plane, touching down at remote landing strips throughout its length.


If amazing dunes are your thing, look no further: the towering, endless, ochre-red dunes of your dreams are in Namibia. One of the oldest and driest ecosystems on earth, it's the kind of place where you can feel like the last human on the planet, and explore the strange beauty of "singing" dunes. The Atlantic's Clive Crook, writing as if he spent a few too many days wandering among the dunes himself, eloquently describes their hypnotic power:

We drove to high points in the dunes and, despite the modest elevation, gazed out for what must have been 20 miles. To the horizon in every direction, there was nothing but pristine, curving planes of sand—precise edges that might have been cut with a scalpel, and surfaces minutely poised at the limit of what the laws of mechanics allow, before they flow, fall, and cascade. There is a wonderfully poetic technical term for that limit: the angle of repose. Wind blows sand up a dune and drops it, at the crest, onto the leeward side, until the angle of the leeward surface to the horizontal exceeds the angle of repose; when that critical slope is reached, the sand drops away on the leeward side, leaving a perfectly defined edge, until the angle of repose is restored. When you disturb the sand on one of those edges, it moves like a viscous liquid, pouring over the surface beneath. From an edge, say, a hundred feet up, this film of excess sand may take minutes to move slowly but unstoppably all the way down. It is mesmerizing.


Fish River Canyon
It's one of the world's largest canyons, but few people have heard of it. 160km long, 550m deep and up to 27km wide, it's like nothing else in Africa: a bizarre and humbling moonscape carved by giants. Pictures hardly do it justice:

A few miles outside the remote coastal town of Luderitz -- an oddity of cutesy German colonial architecture lost along an endless, inhospitable coast -- sits the ghost town of Kolmanskop, a small diamond-mining village built like a German town in 1908, and abandoned to the encroaching sands after a diamond bust in the 1950s. The town still remains, but the houses are slowly disappearing beneath the dunes.


Etosha National Park
One of the largest and best savannah conservation areas on the continent, vast Etosha (it's approximately the size of New Jersey) protects 114 mammal species and some 340 varieties of bird. Much of the park is an enormous saltpan that turns into a shallow lake during the rainy season, which attracts all the animals.


Photo by Flickr user Matzepeng.

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