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Strange Geographies: Cape Tribulation

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When most people picture Australia, the endless brown wastelands of the Outback come to mind; after all, it is the world's driest country. But there's a lesser-known landscape nestled far in the country's remote northeast that's anything but dry and barren; through the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland run mighty rivers and dramatic waterfalls, ancient rainforests that house 18% of the nation's bird population in just 0.2% of its landmass, and endure a mind-blowing 250 inches of rain a year -- most of which falls between February and April. It also boasts some of Australia's most beautiful beaches, which are just a dozen or so miles by boat or seaplane from the edge of the Great Barrier Reef.

Cape Tribulation is literally where the road ends -- at least for any vehicle other than a heavy-duty 4x4 snorkle truck -- and the Reef is how it got its name. Captain Cook ran aground on it on June 10, 1770, nearly sinking, and recorded in his log: that "the north point [was named] Cape Tribulation because here began all our troubles." He had a bad time of it in the Wet Tropics, giving nearby landmarks colorful names like Mount Sorrow, Mount Awful and Weary Bay. That's the other side of the coin when it comes to visiting Cape Tribulation, as I did last March -- it's beautiful and remote, but the potential dangers and pitfalls are many. Read on to see what I found there.

Bordering the Cape is the Daintree rainforest. At more than 135 million years old, it's the oldest and one of the most spectacular rainforests on the planet. As it was explained to me by park rangers, the reason it's survived for so long is that plate tectonics over the eons haven't shifted the Tropical Far North much; Antarctica, for instance, may have had rainforests 135 million years ago, but its dramatic shift south buried them under mountains of ice. Daintree, on the other hand, has had a pretty consistent climate for the last 135 million years or so (despite ice ages and so on). It's not hard to imagine dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures running around in the thick, humid underbrush -- because they did. The 600 million year old zamia fern, for instance, developed an underground root system to defend against browsing dinosaurs.

There are plenty of above-ground root systems, too -- many of which are as thick around as a bodybuilder's bicep.

Water is everywhere: you've never been anywhere so humid in your life.

This spider had to have been five inches long -- and it wasn't the largest I saw, by far.

Not far away, an unbelievable confluence of waterfalls creates a deafening but beautiful sight.

Cape Tribulation itself juts out into the water like the sleeping head of a snake.


Exotic fruits and vegetables are everywhere. I stayed in a cabin on a fruit farm while on the Cape, and I'm not sure I recognized a single fruit or plant.

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These were all delicious. In there somewhere are a West Indian lime, a yellow sapote, a breadfruit (that's the big one), a longan, an abiu, a dragonfruit (the crazy-looking pink one), a salak, a davidson plum (extremely bitter), an atemoya and a rollimia.

The tasty, hypercolor insides of a dragonfruit:

This farm that grew those also grows durian, the powerful and clothes-penetrating aroma of which is often likened to rotting flesh -- unfortunately, they didn't have any on hand to sample.

Close by is a place called the Copper River, known for its robust population of crocodiles. We hired a guide to take us out to look for crocs, but only found one -- faraway and frightened of us.




Despite the beauty of the landscape, there was much to be wary of. We were there during box jellyfish season -- which is nearly half the year -- during which you can't swim in the ocean for fear of becoming entangled in the incredibly poisonous and painful appendages of one of these creatures, which in recent years have become something of a plague along Queensland beaches.

If you happen to get stung and somehow make it out of the water and back up the trailhead, you'll find a handy jug of vinegar waiting to be poured on your wounds. In a pinch, urine will also do.

The only way you can swim in the ocean during box jellyfish season (near the shore, at least) is inside these specially-designed jellyfish nets that some of the tourist towns have set up. It's kind of a depressing way to enjoy the vast beach, though.

Crocodiles are an ever-present danger, as well. There are scary warning signs near just about every body of fresh water.

And yet, twenty feet away ...

But it's not just animals that are out to get you -- some of the plants lurking in Queensland's primeval rainforests are just as dangerous. Take, for instance, "the stinging tree."

In case the fine print is a bit too small to read, here's a close-up. I think nothing in Australia made me more paranoid than this sign.
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Hell, there are even warning signs on the vending machines! Is nowhere safe??

Creepy crawly nasties aside, though, Cape Trib is an strange an amazing place, and I think it can truly be said that there's nowhere else like it on the planet.

Check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

To order prints or get high-resolution downloads of the photos in this essay, click here.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]