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Places of the Dead: 8 Extraordinary Burial Sites

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There are many places you may have never heard of that serve as memento mori- a reminder that we are all mortal, and that not every culture buries their dead six feet underground. Here are eight of them.

Underwater Graveyard

Neptune Memorial Reef, three miles off Key Biscayne, Florida offers a final resting place for those who love the sea. Earthly remains are cremated, then mixed with cement and laid on the ocean floor with a memorial plaque. The cemetery lies 14 meters below the surface.

Hanging Coffins

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The limestone cliffs over Sagada in the Philippines seem like an unlikely place for burial. In fact, many folks who died here were never buried, but are still in their coffins hanging from the cliff faces. The oldest coffin identified has been there over a hundred years, although the custom of placing coffins in  barely accessible places in the cliffs goes back a couple thousand years. Residents are more likely to be buried underground today.

The Fontanelle Cave Tombs

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The Fontanelle Cemetery is located in underground caves in Naples, Italy. The former rock quarries were first used for burials in 1656 as a response to the overwhelming numbers of deaths from the plague. At times, up to 1,500 bodies were left per day! No graves were dug, but bodies were dusted with lime and forgotten. Centuries later, only bones remain. In the 20th century, Italians returned to the caves determined to give respect to the remains by "adopting" a skull. This is especially useful to widows whose husbands never returned from foreign wars in that they could mourn by proxy as they cared for another deceased, if nameless, person. Closed since 1969, the Fontanelle Cemetery has been restored and is now open to the public by reservation.

Colma Necropolis

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When San Francisco passed an ordinance prohibiting any new cemeteries in 1900, burials moved to the area around the small town of Colma, California. In 1912, San Francisco began relocating its existing cemeteries to Colma. The town has 17 cemeteries for people and one for pets. The dead outnumber the living by a thousand to one! Colma has 1,500 residents and around 1.5 million graves. Image by Gregory Melle.

The City of the Dead

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Dargavs, North Ossetia has a collection of 95 stone constructions known as the City of the Dead. Some are underground, other are above ground, and still others are a little of both. The buildings serve as mausoleums, with a building for each family. Some still contain remains of the dead. Very little is known of necropolis' origin, but it dates back at several centuries. Image by Dziadek Mroz.

The Skulls of St. Sebastian

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St. Sebastian's Cemetery in Salzburg is the final resting place of some of Austria's biggest celebrities. Theophrastus Paracelsu, the "father of modern medicine" is interred at St. Sebastian, as well as Mozart's wife and father, and the controversial Archbishop Wolf Dietrich. St. Sebastian's, established in 1502, is adorned with skull motifs in every corner. Burials ceased in 1888. The cemetery is now open to the public daily. Image by Curious Expeditions.

Sedlec Ossuary

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Sedlec Chapel near Kutná Hora, Czech Republic has been a burial ground for nearly 900 years. In that time, thousands of bodies were laid to rest due to plague, war, and natural causes. Because there is not enough space for a grave for each one, the bones of earlier burials were dug up to make room for more. The Sedlec bone chapel, or ossuary, holds the remains of about 40,000 people. The bones were incorporated into the chapel as art and furnishings by František Rint in 1870. See a 1976 documentary tour of the chapel. Image by Curious Expeditions.

Capuchin Catacombs

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The Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Italy are home to thousands of mummies on display. Embalmed corpses interred in the catacombs remained preserved better than other burial sites. This may be due to the particular pride Sicilian embalmers take in their art. Many of the corpses are arranged in tableaux that resemble scenes from life. Others are standing up in groups, as if posing for a picture. One of the more famous corpses in the Palermo catacombs is Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920 at age two, but whose body has not decomposed. The Capuchin Catacombs are open daily to the public.

See also: Destination Cemeteries.

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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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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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