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Strange Geographies: The Fjords of New Zealand

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For most people, the word "fjord" conjures up thoughts of Scandinavia and the majestic, frozen North. But New Zealand, unbeknownst to many, can boast some of the world's best fjords -- hemmed by towering cliffs, fantastically deep and stretching like long, crooked fingers from the Tasman Sea into some of New Zealand's most lush and remote scenery. They are to be found, appropriately enough, within an enormous and mostly unpopulated wilderness known as Fjordland. The easiest of the fjords to visit is Milford Sound, and I was fortunate to be able to take a two-day boat trip down the length of it a while back. This is what I found.

Pictured above is Mitre Peak, which towers nearly a mile above the surface of the water. The water in the glacier-carved fjord itself is some 1600 feet deep. The veritcal scale of everything in Milford is mind-boggling.

Milford Sound is also the wettest place in New Zealand, making it one of the wettest places in the world -- it gets nearly 268 inches of rain every year. That doesn't stop tourists from visiting, though, because big rains put on a spectacular show, creating hundreds of waterfalls along the 15km length of the sound, which crash from the peaks a half-mile or more to the water below.

We picked an unseasonably dry couple of days to visit the fjords (wouldn't you know it) but regardless of the drought-like conditions, there were still a few amazing waterfalls to be seen. The captain maneuvered our boat nearly underneath this one, at which point everyone rushed to the bow and got completely soaked.

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The peaks along the length of the sound are so high that they kind of make their own weather. Three-quarters of a mile up: clouds. For scale, see if you can pick out the huge, two-story boat at the bottom-right of the cliffs. (They're that big.)

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When Captain Cook sailed past the entrance to the fjords back in the 18th century, he decided not to explore them because, thanks to their extremely narrow-looking entrances, he doubted they led to anything substantial or remarkable. (That's how another of New Zealand's fjords, Doubtful Sound, got its name.) As you can see, the cliffs overlap so completely as the sound twists its way to and from the ocean that it's difficult to see more than a kilometer or two down its length.

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One unforgettable treat was kayaking on the Sound at dusk, skirting along the edges of the mighty cliffs and checking out all the seals and seabirds that make their homes near the water. Fed by rainfall but also by glaciers, the water was numbingly cold; luckily, this time I didn't do what I normally do in kayaks, which is flip over.

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We spent the night on the boat, and woke up at the mouth of the fjord, where it joins the Tasman Sea. It was a delicate, still morning, and we were blessed with a rosy dawn, a rare thing in this land of year-round rain.

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Looking toward Australia as we headed back:

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Mitre Peak in the morning. I tell ya, looking at this rock never got old.

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My only regret is that we weren't able to walk the nearby Milford Track -- a multi-day backpacking adventure that's one of the world's great hikes -- but if any of our readers have, I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

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

More 'Strange Geographies'...

The Mojave Desert's Airplane Graveyard
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Salvation Mountain
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The Aborted Suburb of Rotonda Sands, Florida
*
Village Life in Vanuatu
*
Almost the Outback

Or you can see all of them here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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