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The Quick 10: Nine Fallen Natural Landmarks (and One That's Stumbling)

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Forget about London Bridge "“ it seems that everything is falling down. When it comes to natural landmarks, at least, it seems that you'd better catch "˜em while you can. Erosion "“ and occasionally vandals "“ are making nature's birthmarks a thing of the past. Here are nine landmarks that you can no longer view and one that's headed that way.


1. The Old Man of the Mountain was a natural landmark in New Hampshire up until about six and a half years ago. The way it was positioned on the side of the mountain prompted Daniel Webster to write, "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men." Unfortunately, God Almighty apparently saw fit to close up shop in April 2003, because his "sign" collapsed down the side of the mountain. You can still see it, though "“ New Hampshirites (New Hampshans? New Hampshirians?) voted to make the Old Man the emblem on their state quarter a few years prior to its demise.


2. Jumpoff Joe used to be a huge rock formation "“ a sea stack, to be exact "“ on the beach in Newport, Oregon. For most of the 1800s, it was impossible to walk along the beach without somehow climbing over or walking through the 100-foot chunk of stone. By the 1890s, erosion created a small gap between the cliffs and the rock, and without the support of the cliffs, the arch collapsed in a severe storm in 1916.

3. Similarly, Wall Arch of Arches National Park in Utah, is no longer. At one point it was 33 feet tall and 71 feet across and was the 12th largest arch in the park, which is no small feat considering that the park is home to more than 2,000 of the majestic structures.

gods finger
4. El Dedo de Dios "“ "God's Finger" "“ was once located in the Atlantic Ocean by Las Palmas, Spain. The spindly stone vaguely resembled a finger sticking up from a closed fist, sort of like the "#1" gesture. At least, it did until November, 2005, when Tropical Storm Delta broke the finger off like a vengeful mobster.


5. Honeymoon Bridge. I'm kind of cheating with this one "“ it's not exactly a natural landmark, but a bridge spanning a natural landmark. Also known as the Upper Steel Arch Bridge or the Fallsview Bridge, this structure opened in 1898 and spanned 840 feet at Niagara Falls. For years after its installation, the bridge swayed with heavy winds and unexpected weights. Of course, the bridge was built to sway a little, but this one moved so much it made people hold their breath when driving over it. And with good reason "“ after an ice storm in January 1938, the bridge collapsed under the added weight of the ice on the bridge and the support structures. It was replaced in 1941 by the Rainbow Bridge, located about 500 feet away from where the Honeymoon Bridge originally stood.

6. No doubt you're familiar with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, at least by name. They were built by Nebuchadnezzar II for his ailing wife sometime around 600 BC who was terribly homesick for her native Persia. He decided that if she had a place where she could visit the beautiful plants and fragrant aromas of home, she might feel better. Legend has it that the gardens were destroyed by earthquakes sometime during the second century B.C., but there's also some debate as to whether the gardens actually existed at all.

7. Eye of Needle in Montana was another arching natural landmark that collapsed over Memorial Day in 1997. Unlike the others, though, this topple wasn't an act of God. When park rangers went to investigate the situation, they discovered beer bottles, footprints and trash. By itself, perhaps that wouldn't have been an indication, but when coupled with the fact that several other sandstone structures had been toppled "“ smaller ones "“ it was concluded that drunken vandals purposely destroyed the 10,000+ year-old monument. The perpetrators have never been caught, but if they are, they could face 10 years in jail and $250,000 in fines.


8. Jeffrey Pine at Sentinel Dome in Yosemite is probably most famous from the photography of Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins. We're lucky that they saw fit to record the gnarled pine for posterity, because the four-centuries-old tree fell to the ground in 2003. It's a wonder the tree stayed erect that long, actually "“ it died during a drought in 1977, despite heroic efforts by park rangers to save it by carrying buckets of water out to the remote location. The dead trunk was left there.

fallen apostle

9. One of Australia's Twelve Apostles limestone stacks took an eternal swim in the ocean in July 2005. The rock pillar, which took 20 million years to form, crumbled away into the water right before the very eyes of some tourists photographing the formation. This photo was taken shortly after the fall.


10. Ah, Chimney Rock, a milestone for Oregon Trail-blazers everywhere. The real ones and the Apple ones, I mean. But should citizens of the United States decide to head west in the future, Chimney Rock probably won't be there to guide the way: the landmark is eroding at an alarmingly fast rate, losing more than 30 feet in the past century and a half. Like the Old Man of the Mountain, Chimney Rock has been preserved on the Nebraska state quarter, so if it does abruptly crumble, at least we can still see it etched in silver. And there's always the Oregon Trail app, I suppose"¦

Did anyone make it to any of these before they bit the dust? Share your experience in the comments. I'm sorry to say I haven't seen any of them!

You can follow Stacy Conradt on Twitter.

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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]