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Strange Geographies: Almost the Outback

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Last spring, a friend and I took a trip to Australia and Vanuatu. Our main reason for being in Australia was to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef -- mission accomplished -- but even though we were in the humid, tropical northeast portion of the country, I'm a desert lover and made it my mission to see if we could find something like "the Outback" in the short time that we had between dives and our flight out of the country. So we rented a 2WD sedan that was laughably inappropriate for any sort of rough-road adventure and drove west as far as car like that could go in rural Australia during the wet season -- which, as it turned out, was only a few hundred kilometers. But that was more than far enough to discover a country that was a world away from the green, beachy surf towns we had left on the coast: landing in a tiny mining town on the edge of nowhere called Chillagoe, we stumbled upon an unexpectedly rich vein of history and natural beauty.

The first thing we noticed about Chillagoe is that there were kangaroos everywhere -- in the fields, in the streets, and in people's backyards, to such a degree that locals had to lock their doors at night or 'roos would hop right into their houses, looking for food. We'd been in country for nearly a week but hadn't seen any until we got to Chillagoe, so naturally we were excited; the locals, however, were anything but. "They're pests," the local bar owned told me, "and they're very stupid. They'll run right in front of your car." Indeed: the first kangaroo we'd seen was roadkill.

The other thing we noticed about Chillagoe is that there was almost no point from the town where you couldn't see this giant chimneystack rising over the landscape. When we finally asked what it was, we were told with some pride that it was the town's number one tourist attraction: a disused ore smelter from the Chillagoe's mining days, located atop a ruddy pile of rubble just outside of town. "Past the Fords and up the hill," explained the woman running the petrol station.

"The Fords?"
"Another tourist attraction," she assured us.

We checked into our motel. There wasn't much to do in the town itself but drink, and the drinks fridge in our motel was rather seriously padlocked --


-- so we went to look at the smelter. (By the way, I hope the condensation on that fridge door gives you an idea of just how hot it was; it was, quite literally, beer commercial hot.)

The smelter was actually rather impressive; I thought it looked a bit like some old Roman funerary monument. It opened in 1901 and closed in 1950 and was the economic lifeblood of the town during that time. Since 1950 the population had dropped significantly; now there were only about 250 people living in Chillagoe. It reminded me of the boom-and-bust stories behind many semi-ghost mining towns I've visited across California.


It was only after I'd climbed the hill and peeked inside the charred belly of the smelter that I noticed signs everywhere warning me not to do either of those things. Luckily, there was no one around to enforce the warnings -- though the angry-looking trees poking out of the hill like scarecrows probably should've been enough to ward me away, signs or no signs.

dead tree

Later, we drove around town aimlessly, went swimming at a local swimming hole, and then wandered into a peaceful-looking graveyard. It was cool and deserted, except for a dozen or so kangaroos, who studied us for awhile before hopping away into the bush.


Among the many old, historic grave markers in the cemetery were more recent, seemingly impermanent markers made of plastic and painted wood. It took us a little while to figure out that they were there to mark the graves of aboriginal people.

Bordering the cemetery were enormous termite mounds, some of them three and four feet high. Later we found out that these were nothing -- in other parts of the country, termite mounds can grow up to twenty feet high.

There were amazing karst rock formations surrounding the town; they're enough to make anyone want to become a miner. This one was in an area important to aboriginal people, who had lived among the hollows for untold thousands of years and covered some of them with ceremonial drawings.


The area also has an impressive network of limestone caves -- more than a thousand. We joined a guided tour of one cave system and were taken into this cathedral-like room, where enormous tree roots grow hundreds of feet down into the cave just to reach shallow puddles of water that collect at its base.

The next morning, I ventured out alone to see the Fords, which turned out to be a junkyard full of old Ford cars that had mostly been stripped for parts. After taking this picture --


-- I was chased by a seemingly vicious junkyard dog. I jumped onto the roof of one of the cars to get out of range of its snapping jaws, and I stood there like that, in this deserted junkyard, the dogs snarling and barking at me from just a few feet away, for at least ten minutes. Finally, some aboriginal guys in a pickup truck drove up, gave me a placid nod like my situation was totally normal, and the dog left and ran after them, happily wagging its tail.

We left a few hours later. On the way back to the coast, we saw two of the strangest signs I've ever seen while driving, a perfect cap to a weird couple of days in the not-quite-Outback.



I thought $2 for a bag of poo -- even with the exchange rate in our favor -- seemed a bit high. (BTW, the bottom of the sign says "Moo poo too.")

You can check out more Strange Geographies here.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]