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The Quick 10: 10 Notable Elevators

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Today marks the anniversary of the first installation of something that those of us who work in many-floored office buildings take for granted until it craps out "“ the elevator. I can't say that the elevators I ride in every day are particularly notable, but these 10 certainly are. I'm omitting the Eiffel Tower elevator because I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago. I was going to include Willy Wonka's Glass Elevator, but there were so many cool real elevators, I decided to exclude it too (sorry, Charlie).

1. Oregon City Municipal Elevator "“ Oregon City, Oregon. This one is unique because it's the only outdoor municipal elevator in the United States. What's more, there are only four in the whole world. The elevator connects two neighborhoods in Oregon City; people used to rely on stairways built into the cliffs until the first elevator was made in 1915. That one was water-powered and it took three minutes for a one-way ride. The new (and current) elevator was dedicated in 1955. The observation deck at the top lets viewers check out views of Willamette Falls, the Oregon City Bridge and the Abernethy Bridge.
2. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror - various Disney locations around the world. As a self-professed Disney freak and lover of all things creepy, I couldn't pass this up. I don't want to ruin the surprise for people who have never been on it, but let's just say that the elevator that comprises the ride does things that you hope your elevator will never do. I guess that's what happens when you stay in a haunted hotel"¦

3. The Gateway Arch "“ St. Louis, Missouri. These elevators are technically an elevator-tram hybrid. You probably get what I mean if you've ever visited the St. Louis Arch, but if you haven't, I'll try to explain. At the bottom of the arch, you enter a little compartment that seats five people, and there are eight compartments to a tram. The compartments were done because their design allows them to rotate and level themselves out while the entire train stays on a track following the curve of the arch. It'll take you four minutes in the tram to get to the observation deck at the top, and three minutes to get back down to the sweet, blessed ground (I'm not a big fan of heights).

4. Christ the Redeemer "“ Rio de Janeiro. Yep, there's an elevator at the giant statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro. But not the way you think"¦ at least, it wasn't the way I think.

I was picturing an elevator running inside of Jesus like an intestinal tract or something. Maybe you peer out of his eyes"¦ what a tourist destination that would be, right? "See what Jesus sees!" But if you're thinking what I was thinking, you would be wrong. Embarrassingly so. The three panoramic elevators carry visitors up the steep slope of Corcovado mountain to an escalator that will take them to the base of the monument. Prior to 2002, visitors had to climb 220 steps to make it to the top.

dubuque5. Fourth Street Elevator/Fenelon Place Elevator "“ Dubuque, Iowa. I had to throw this in, because of course I'm biased toward anything from Iowa. But this elevator is cool in its own right, too. The elevator was erected because a wealthy banker (and former mayor and state senator) liked to run home at lunch and take a nap, but by the time he got all of the way to his house at the top of the bluffs, his lunch was already half over. Naturally, he built an elevator that would cut his travel time down immensely. This is actually the third incarnation; the first two burned down. From the observation decks at the top you can see three states "“ Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

6. Jinmao Building "“ Shanghai. The elevators at the Jinmao Building in Shanghai are notable for their sheer speed "“ the express elevators can take you from the basement to the 88th floor in 45 seconds. Kind of makes me want to puke just thinking about it.

7. The Buttonless Elevator "“ Tokyo Apple store. You can't push a button to make the elevator come, and you can't decide what floor you want. This is really a clever marketing gimmick to make you stop at all four floors of this Apple store, but I bet it's fun for the employees to watch customers walk up to the elevator with an index finger outstretched, only to find no buttons to jab at.

paternoster8. Paternosters, various places (the picture is of one from the University of Vienna that was used until 2007). These are widely out of use now, used to be used pretty commonly in Europe. Instead of having one elevator car on one track, the paternosters were a series of open compartments that continuously loop inside of a building. It's so-named because it resembles the beads of a rosary "“ "Pater Noster" means "Our Father." It's also called the Cyclic Elevator.

9. Inclinators at the Luxor "“ Las Vegas, Nevada. I bet the ancient Egyptians wish they had these. What makes these elevators cool is the fact that they are actually "inclinators." Because the building is sloped (as you might expect a pyramid to be), the elevators/inclinators travel along the inside of the building a 39-degree angle. Some reports call this extremely disorienting, and although I've been to the Luxor, I've never ridden the elevators. What say you, _flossers?

10. "Top of the Rock" elevators of the GE Building, New York. If you're headed to the observation deck of the GE Building, you'll be treated to a ride in the dark. Well, sort of. The lights in the elevator turn off and light above the car turns on to illuminate the glass ceiling so you can check out the ride all the way up. They also project images onto the ceiling. Here's what it looks like - kinda trippy!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.