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11 Times the Doomsday Clock Time Has Been Adjusted

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Today, January 26, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced [PDF] that the Doomsday Clock would be set ahead 30 seconds. We now stand at 2 minutes and 30 seconds to midnight. It's the closest we've come to midnight since the 1950s. 

If you haven't heard of the Doomsday Clock, here's a brief and terrifying synopsis for you: It was created in 1947 at the University of Chicago as an easy analogy to show people how close we are to armageddon at any given moment. "Midnight" on the clock represents doomsday, and, obviously, the closer the hands are to midnight, the closer we are to total annihilation.

The group set the clock ahead 30 seconds for 2017 because in the past year, "the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change," it said in a statement. It also cited as causes for deep concern the dangerous proliferation of fake news—"trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways"—and potential threats from emerging technologies, especially sophisticated hacks that can wreak havoc on both power grids and electoral systems.

When it was first "set" in 1947, during the Cold War, we were at 11:53. Since then, it's been readjusted 22 times. Here are 11 of those adjustments and why they happened.

1. By 1953, the clock had lost five minutes, putting the time at 11:58. But there was good reason—it was the time period when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were testing nukes. So far, it's the closest we've ever been to midnight.

2. Ten years later, though, we had not only gained back those five, we had doubled it. The clock was at 11:48 thanks to increased studies and scientific understanding of nuclear weapons. And, in 1963, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which limited nuclear testing.

3. Although things were looking up regarding the Soviet Union, by 1968, France and China had developed nukes and we were embroiled in Vietnam. Mainly due to those events, we lost another five minutes, putting us at 11:53.

4. In the next three years, the Senate passed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The three treaties equaled five minutes gained on the clock, putting us back at 11:48.

5. At least, until India tested a nuclear device in 1974 and we lost another three. The clock read 11:51.

6. By 1981, the U.S. and the USSR weren't as "friendly" as they were during the past treaties, and discussions had kind of stalled. The arms race was getting out of control, terrorists were becoming more active, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had sharpened the division between the United States and the USSR. This resulted in a loss of six minutes, putting us closer to midnight than we had been since 1953.

7. But then things started to look up. By 1991, more treaties were signed, the Berlin Wall was torn down, the Iron Curtain fell. We gained a whopping 14 minutes, putting us at 11:43, the farthest we have ever been from midnight. Talk about a swing in events.

8. It didn't last long, though, and we've been losing ground ever since. In 1998, India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons. That combined with increased military spending throughout the world caused us to lose eight minutes, putting us back in the less-than-10-minute range, putting us at 11:51.

9. We still weren't gaining any ground in 2002. The U.S. rejected arms control treaties, probably because of 9/11, and announced they were withdrawing from the previously-signed Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This resulted in a loss of two minutes; the clock read 11:53.

10. The clock lost two minutes in 2007 thanks to North Korea's nuke tests and the uncertainty of Iran's nuclear actions. Another two were lost in 2015 because the United States and Russia began modernizing their nuclear weapons programs—and the threat of climate change was added to the previous worries of nuclear destruction.

11. The 30-second move this year marks the first time the group has set the clock ahead less than a full minute. Why? They're deeply troubled by Donald Trump's "statements and actions" but acknowledge it's still early in his administration. They write, "He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science. In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse."

Editor's note: This story, which first ran in 2009, has been updated.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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