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Invasion of the Living Statues

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Living statues "“ those people who dress in bizarre costumes, frequently involving head to toe metallic paint, and plant themselves in well-traveled thoroughfares "“ are already a staple of London's urban landscape. Some are pretty cool, others simply annoying and weird.

But this summer, British artist Antony Gormley is elevating the living statue, or perhaps more accurately, soap-boxing it, to the realm of high art. Gormley, a well-respected British sculpture artist, has put together the "One & Other" project, which will see 2400 regular British folks hoisted up on the empty fourth plinth ringing London's historic Trafalger Square, one for each hour of every day for 100 days, rain, shine, or pigeons. The ordinary Joes (or Nigels or Janes) are each given an hour to do exactly what they want from their very public perch, whether it's celebrating a birthday party, appealing on behalf of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or dressing as a panda bear. Right now, as I'm watching, some guy is shouting something about the Christian Aid organization (it's a bit difficult to hear).

The project generated quite a lot of buzz in the weeks of its organization "“ 21,136 potential "plinthers," as they're being called, applied for only 2400 spots. [Image courtesy of Flickr user Where The Art Is.]

Gormley, whose previous works have included life-size bronze casts of himself perched atop buildings around the city, said that he hoped that the project would inspire a "certain degree of anarchy," and that the project is an exploration of the connection between the individual and the society he or she represents.

Anti-smoking activist disrupts kick off

ban-tobaccoSo, while the project and its intended "certain degree of anarchy" is in and of itself very interesting, it was the unplanned anarchy (I know, that's somewhat redundant) around its opening on July 6 that perhaps eclipsed it. Just five minutes before the first plinther was scheduled to ascend the platform, a lone, rabid anti-smoking activist slipped the guards, sprint across the balustrade, threw himself on the safety netting around the plinth, and shimmied, unassisted, up to the top. Stuart Holmes, a veteran soap-boxer who typically harangues from out in front of the High Courts and who may also be Spiderman, carried a sign reading "Save the Children. Ban Tobacco and Actors Smoking." [Image courtesy of Flickr user aarkangel.]

Gormley, who appeared not too fazed by Holmes's stunt, appealed to the protestor's better nature, asking him to do the "gentlemanly thing" and make way for the real plinther. At one point, Holmes yelled, "Give me a mic!" to which Gormley gamely responded, "You should have brought your own, that's the rules!"

This was unplanned art at its best "“ even Boris Johnson, London's mayor who was part of the kick-off festivities, seemed to agree: After alternately lauding Holmes for his attempt to hijack the show and pleading with him to get down with some exceptionally bad puns ("one day your plinth will come"), Johnson ultimately said, "I want to thank the organizers and thank this man for ascending the plinth as brilliantly as he has... What is fame? Is it a lottery or is it self-selected as this chap's demonstration? This is one of the questions the fourth plinth asks us to meditate on."

Holmes, who gave his occupation as "anti-smoking activist," said, on his descent, "Actors smoking in films is enticing children to the holocaust of smoking," but little else.

The project will continue through October 14 and is visible to the world via a live feed.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]