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The Quick 10: 10 Unusual Golf Courses

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So I started golfing this summer. If you can call it that. I'm still in the "pathetically hitting buckets while eight-year-olds laugh at me" stage, not even close to the "let's play the back nine and have a few drinks" stage. Yeah, I'm nowhere near actually playing a game, let alone playing any of these. But maybe they are something to aspire to, at least some of them. Here are 10 of the most unique golf courses in the world.

ANGOLA1. Prison View Golf Course, Angola, Louisiana. Have you ever wanted to play a round in the shadow of one of the most formidable prisons in the United States? You can! The nine-hole course was built and is maintained by prisoners, who aren't allowed to play on it. It was designed by the prison dentist and appears to be much like any other golf course"¦ except for some of the rules. Anyone wanting to play must apply 48 hours in advance so they can be screened, and play may be suspended at any time "due to institutional need or at the Warden's discretion."

2. Kabul Golf Club, Kabul, Afghanistan. The greens are brown (even nearly black), but that doesn't stop people from playing. Originally opened in 1967, the Kabul Golf Club has had a spotty history ever since. It closed in 1978 because it was considered a symbol of Western capitalism, but reopened in 2004. Since it was used as a military training site during those non-golfing decades, it had to be swept for landmines before anyone could play on it again. I'd still be a little wary about playing on it, personally!

3. Mosul, Iraq. It may not be there anymore, but in 2004, some homesick soldiers made a makeshift hole using an antenna and an oil rag as a flag. It was so popular that five more holes were added and the impromptu Mosul golf course was born.

MCMURDO4. McMurdo Station, Antarctica. You might remember from my post a few weeks ago that McMurdo boasts Antarctica's only ATM. Well, it also boasts the only golf course on the continent. OK, OK, it's a disc golf course, but I thought it was worth a mention. It warns that the "varied" terrain includes snow, ice, drifts and high winds. You think?

idaho5. The Coeur d'Alene Resort Golf Course, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. It's not so much the location that makes this interesting, it's the 14th hole. It floats, it moves, and you can only get to it by taking "The Putter Boat Shuttle."
6. Camp Bonifas, South Korea. There's a reason Sports Illustrated called this the most dangerous hole in golf "“ the rough is full of land mines, and unlike the course in Kabul, these have definitely not been removed. One of the SI reporter's shots actually set one off. But there's only one hole, so your flirtation with danger will be brief.

7. Furnace Creek, Death Valley, California. It's the lowest golf course in the world at 218 feet below sea level, and you're definitely going to want to bring something to keep yourself cool: summer temperatures can exceed 130 degrees Fahrenheit. They used to close the place during the summer, turning it over to a cattle rancher and letting his sheep keep their fairways tended. But now it's available year-round in case you really feel like breaking a good sweat. Oh, and you have to watch out for the coyotes that are prone to wandering onto the course. There's also the Devil's Golf Course in Death Valley, but you won't be able to play it "“ it's just a large salt pan that made weird salt crystal formations. It was nicknamed in a 1934 guide book that claimed "Only the Devil could play golf" on its surface.

greenland8. Uummannaq, Greenland. It's home to the World Ice Golf Championship and offers stunning views of icebergs and formations; it also offers frostbite and hypothermia if you're not careful. It's a lot like normal golf, except the greens are called whites and the golf balls are red "“ obviously, you're going to lose track of a typical white orb. The course changes every year based on the position of the fjords and icebergs. Interestingly, Rudyard Kipling used to play snow golf during the Vermont winters in the later 1800's to keep himself amused while writing The Jungle Book.

9. Golf Merapi, Mount Merapi, Indonesia. On the day in 1994 when the construction started on this course, Mount Merapi volcano erupted. It's a mere five miles away, so this could have been a cause for concern. It was a minor affair, though, and locals saw it as a blessing from the Gods. The Sultan calls it his home course, and it is said that it never rains when he plays. Another eruption did occur in 2006, big enough to send golfers scurrying for home. "That is the risk of putting a club here," the owner casually said.

BOLIVIA10. La Paz Golf Club, La Paz, Bolivia. If you're going to golf the lowest course the world, you might as well golf the highest course as well. La Paz Golf Club is 10,650 feet above sea level and takes golfers some time to get used to. But once they do, they're singing the praises of the course: most golfers report that balls seem to go straighter and fly higher than they do anywhere else. True, or psychological? Either way, the view is amazing. Some of the terrain is referred to as moonscape because of the appearance of the eroded sandstone that surrounds it. Other scenery includes snow-capped mountains in the distances and, sometimes, condors circling overhead.
What about you? Have you ever golfed a course with particularly cool scenery or an interesting hole? Share in the comments! And if you're a pathetic golfer like I am, share that too"¦ make me feel better.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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.

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