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3 Hells on Earth

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What do San Jose, Applebee's, Wyoming, Chuck E. Cheese, and the Apple Store have in common? They all appear on the first page of a Google search for "Hell on Earth is" "“ along with war, alcohol withdrawal and Long Island. Having lived in Wyoming for two years, I'll respectfully disagree with the Cowboy State being compared to Hell, despite the fact that it's home to Devils Tower National Monument. But if you'd like to take a trip to a Hell on Earth, forget Cheyenne and book a ticket to one of these three destinations instead.

1. Hell, Grand Cayman

Located just north of Seven Mile Beach, the main attraction in Grand Cayman's tiny Hell community is a jagged black rock formation called phytokarst "“ formed by the biological erosion of limestone and dolomite by algae "“ surrounded by tropical flora. According to legend, an Englishman visiting Grand Cayman in the 1930s attempted to shoot a bird over the rock formation, missed, and cried, "Oh, hell!" The name stuck.

Around the same time that the misfiring Englishman christened Hell, Ivan Farrington was born there. Farrington was raised in Hell, joined the Merchant Marine and traveled the world for 19 years, and then returned to his native Cayman. After working construction for a few years on the island, the enterprising Farrington opened a gift shop in the old Hell post office and named it Paradise. Business was slow "“ "it went straight to Hell" is how Farrington described it to me when I visited Hell last week "“ so he dropped the Paradise name in favor of Devil's Hangout. Farrington's shop and the new post office next door has been a hot spot for Cayman tourists ever since.

hell-cayman.jpgToday, Farrington is the face of Hell. He wears a devil costume and greets visitors in his shop with an endless arsenal of devilish phrases. "How the hell are you?" "Hell of a nice day, isn't it?" When I asked if I could take a photo of Farrington, he replied, "What the hell are you waiting for?" All sorts of Hell-themed souvenirs fill the room and the walls are adorned with photos of former visitors, including Kenny Rogers "“ the musician, not the baseball player "“ and a former Miss Universe. Farrington has been featured on Inside Edition and an episode of Blind Date, and the septuagenarian is happily married to a woman from West Virginia. The couple met in the Devil's Hangout, though Farrington ditched the devil garb for the wedding ceremony.

2. Hell, Michigan

Need directions to Hell? University of Michigan football fans could probably provide them, and not only because they just suffered through the worst season in school history. Hell, Mich., is located about 15 miles northwest of Ann Arbor, in Putnam Township. There are a couple of stories as to how the town got its name, but the most widely accepted version goes like this: Before his death in 1877, George Reeves, an early settler of the area who operated a flour mill and a whiskey distillery, was asked what he thought the town should be called. He responded, "Name it Hell for all I care." Done and done.

screams-hell.jpgThrough the years, Hell has attracted thousands of tourists with events and businesses that play off of the town's sinful name. On June 6, 2006 (6-6-06), about 100,000 people flocked to the community of less than 300 for a party that was promoted by the owner of the Screams Ice Cream and Halloween Store in town. The celebration drew the ire of Hell residents, some of whom complained to the police. Rick Beaudin, a local real estate agent, put it best: "If you live next to the University of Michigan stadium, you have to know you're going to have crowds on football weekends," he told a wire news service. "If you live in or near a town named Hell, you have to expect that things are going to happen once in awhile." Annual events in Hell include a road race (Run Thru Hell), a motorcycle rally (Blessing of the Bikes), and a classic car gathering (Helluva Cruise).

3. Hell, Norway

hell-norway.jpgIt's actually quite common for Hell to freeze over in this small village in central Norway, about 200 miles north of Oslo. Temperatures in the Stjordal municipality occasionally dip below zero during the winter. The name Hell comes from the old Norwegian word hellir, which means a cave hidden by an overhanging cliff. In modern Norwegian, hellir means good luck. A post office is one of this Hell's main attractions, with tourists stopping in to mail postcards and letters bearing the unusual four-letter postmark. The sign on a wooden building next to the Hell railroad station, where passengers have been known to purchase tickets to Hell and back, presents another photo opportunity. "Hell "“ Gods Expedition," the sign reads, which translates to freight office.

If you think nothing good has ever come out of Hell, think again. Nineteen-year-old Mona Grudt entered the 1990 Miss Universe pageant and referred to herself as the "beauty queen from Hell." Grudt, who was born in Hell, became the first Norwegian to win the competition by edging out first runner-up Carole Gist, the first African-American woman to win the Miss USA title. While it would've been one hell of a story, Grudt was not the Miss Universe winner who visited Ivan Farrington and the Devil's Hangout in Cayman.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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