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Digging Up Dirt: 7 Lost Time Capsules

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According to the International Time Capsule Society at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, there are approximately 10,000 time capsules in the world. Unfortunately, they also estimate that no one remembers where 9,000 of them are buried. Here's what happened to seven of these lost collections.

1. State secret

Even though most time capsules contain little of monetary value, there's always that chance that someone will deface or damage them just to be a jerk. The City of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, developed an ingenious plan to prevent such vandalism when they decided to inter a time capsule in 1962. They elected a special committee to decide where the capsule should be buried and were then instructed to keep the location a secret. The men kept their word all right—perhaps a little too well.

Twenty-five years later, when the capsule was supposed to be dug up for the city's 100th anniversary in 1987, almost all of the committee members had died and none had passed on the time capsule's secret location. Only one member of the committee was still alive, and he couldn't remember where it was. To this day, the capsule is still hidden somewhere underneath the city.

2. Lost in space?

To commemorate the fifth anniversary of their San Diego headquarters, General Dynamics Astronautics placed a time capsule inside a concrete vault in 1963. Inside the capsule was a small book titled 2063 A.D., named for the year they intended to retrieve the capsule. The book was a series of interviews with politicians, military personnel, and those in the space program, offering educated predictions about life 100 years in the future.

For example, Brigadier General Irving Branch (USAF), suggested the moon would have a population of 100,000 by 2063; Mars' colony would be a quaint town of only 10,000. John Glenn thought we would have an anti-gravity rocket propulsion system that would take us further into space than we could even imagine possible. And then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson felt man would be able to control the weather, have the capability for global communications, and that commutes between space stations and planets would be an everyday event.

Unfortunately, when the General Dynamics building was torn down in the late-1990s, the time capsule could not be found and has been presumed destroyed. But all is not lost—the forward-thinkers of 1963 had the bright idea of printing around 200 copies of 2063 A.D. and distributing them to select universities all over the United States.

3. Signed, sealed, not delivered

The Bicentennial Wagon Train of 1976 consisted of 50 horse-drawn wagons, one for each state, traveling across the country following the traditional wagon trails that led the pioneers out West. Only this time, the travelers were going in the opposite direction—from the West Coast, back to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where they would take part in a huge Bicentennial celebration. Along the way, passing through towns big and small, they collected the signatures of a reported 22 million Americans. These signatures were placed inside a time capsule to be buried at a ceremony presided over by President Gerald Ford himself. However, moments before the big event, it was discovered that the capsule had been stolen from the back of the van, never to be seen again.

4. Resurfacing

Every once in a while, a supposedly long-lost time capsule will crop up again—like one of the two capsules that were supposed to be buried in 1953 as part of the centennial celebration of the Washington Territory (now the state of Washington). While the larger capsule was interred as planned, the smaller one was inexplicably left in a fifth floor storage room of the state Capitol building. It had been packed away inside a nondescript crate and would probably still be there today were it not for an earthquake that damaged the Capitol in 2001. While cleaning out the storage room, workers assumed the lead container held old mimeograph fluid. As they began to haul the crate out of the room, they noticed writing on the side that told them what they had really found.

In a risky move, the capsule was placed back into storage at another facility until the repairs to the Capitol building were completed. All went smoothly this time around, and the capsule was ultimately buried next to its big brother on the Capitol grounds in 2005. To ensure this type of thing doesn't happen again when the capsules are supposed to be opened in 2053, a small brass plaque was placed on the spot where they're buried, and a document describing the location was sent to the state's archives in both Olympia and Cheney, Washington.

5. Repeat offenders

The city of Corona, California, holds the all-time record for time capsules lost by one organization. As part of Corona's 1985 Labor Day celebration, 17 time capsules buried since the 1930s by local high school classes were meant to be retrieved. City workers began tearing up the concrete around civic hall where the first capsule was thought to be, but they came up empty. So they tried the next spot. Nothing. In all they dug 17 holes, tore up a lot of concrete, and found zero time capsules.

6. Photo proof

During the July 22, 1941, dedication of the 162-foot high Kingsley Dam on Lake McConaughy in Nebraska, a copper time capsule was ceremoniously lowered into a 100-foot hole somewhere along the expanse of the three-mile long dam. To commemorate the event, photos were taken, including one of two 12-year old girls who were chosen to cut the ribbon on a derrick that deposited the canister into the shaft. The capsule was meant to remain sealed inside the dam until 2041, the 100th anniversary of the Kingsley construction.

In 1991, officials thought it would be a good idea to designate the site of the capsule with a marker as part of the dam's 50th anniversary. There was just one problem: no one knew exactly where the capsule was anymore. They did recall that a plaque describing the location of the capsule had been sent to the state Capitol for safe-keeping—but no one at the Capitol building had ever seen or heard of such a plaque. Almost out of ideas, they started looking through the dam's archives and discovered the photos from the ceremony, including the one of the two girls cutting the ribbon. Thanks to the photographic evidence, they were finally able to track down the location of the capsule and put a sign on top.

7. It ain't rocket science

There is one time capsule that isn't exactly lost, but it might as well be. A brass capsule was placed on the campus of MIT in 1889. Unfortunately, everyone had forgotten it was there, and in 1939, the school chose the ground above it for the location of their cyclotron particle accelerator. The accelerator has since been deactivated, but the capsule is going to have to stay where it is for now—retrieving it would require moving the 36,000 pound cyclotron, and even the geniuses at MIT haven't figured out an easy way to do that yet.

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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]