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Alert, Nunavut: Top of the World

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Alert, Nunavut, Canada on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island is the northernmost inhabited community on earth. The North Pole is only 508 miles away.

The community was named after the HMS Alert, the first ship to reach the north end of Ellesmere Island in 1875. Originally an Inuit community, Alert now houses Canadian Forces Station Alert, a weather station, a Global Atmosphere Watch laboratory, and an airport. There are also five permanent residents.


Daylight and darkness in Alert are five months long. In the month between those periods, the sun bobs above and below the horizon, giving the illusion of normal days, even though the length of daylight and darkness varies. Temperatures reach above freezing only in July and August. In winter, temperatures around -40 °C are considered normal.

CFS Alert


Canadian Forces Station Alert is an intelligence signal receiving station. In its heyday, CFS Alert had a crew of over 200 people at a time. In the mid 90s, it was converted to remote-control operations, and the staff has been reduced to a crew of 74. They call themselves "The Frozen Chosen." The Canadian government is gradually turning over some of the operations at Alert to private contractors. Learn more about the technical operations at CFS Alert here.


Military doctors note that new arrivals at CFS Alert invariably gained weight. The food is reported to be excellent, and commanding officers encourage personnel to become socially active. One source of entertainment is CHAR 105.9FM, the base radio station. Shown are Derek Gauthier and Eric Payne on air in 2004.



The Alert Airport is served by military flights only. Supplies for Alert are brought in from the US Air Force base in Thule, Greenland during Operation Boxtop. Twice a year, cargo planes bring in 267,000 imperial gallons of fuel and 738,000 pounds of supplies. Last fall, three Canadian CC-130s and one civilian C-130 were in operation 24 hours a day delivering load after load of supplies to Alert.


There have been two fatal air crashes in the Alert area. In 1950, as the first weather station was set up, an RCAF Lancaster brought in supplies to be dropped by parachute. The chute became entangled in the plane's tail, leading to a crash. All nine crew members died and were buried near the Alert airstrip. In 1991, a C-130 cargo plane running an Operation Boxtop supply flight crashed about 30 kilometers short of Alert. Four crew members died in the crash, the pilot died while waiting for rescue, and 13 survived. A 1993 movie, Ordeal in the Arctic, tells the story of that crash.



Alert also has the Dr. Neil Trivett Global Atmosphere Watch Observatory. The GAW laboratory monitors background concentrations of trace gasses. It is an official greenhouse gas comparison site, measuring changes in the atmosphere over time. It's a cool place to work.



As cold as it is, Alert is not completely barren. Wildlife includes muskoxen, arctic hares, foxes, caribou, birds, and wolves. They're drawn to the fresh water of Dumbell Lake, which also supplies water to Alert. Vegetation is limited to plants that will flourish during the months of July and August, then survive over winter.



The first weather station was established at Alert in 1950. The Canadian military took over operations and established the signal receiving station in 1958. The 50th anniversary of Sigint (signal intelligence) was celebrated last September with a reunion of Alert veterans.

You'll find a lot more on Alert by following the highlighted links. Also, watch a couple of videos give you an idea of what Alert is like in summer and the rest of the year.

See also: The Coldest Places on Earth

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]