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Strange Objects Under the Sea

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Kristian von Homsleth is a Danish artist who aims to sink a giant, metal, star-shaped sculpture – that will have at its center a cylinder filled with (donated) human blood and hair – in the Marianas Trench toward the end of this year. Hornsleth – who considers the sculpture to be a meditation on life, eternity, and the imperviousness of large-scale art projects – expects the sculpture will remain sunk for 10 to 15 thousand years.

It got us wondering what else has been purposely sunk in the sea...

Like more sculptures! Jason de Caires Taylor – British/Guyanese artist, diving instructor, and underwater naturalist – made an underwater sculpture park in Grenada in 2006. The park is in snorkelable or divable water. The sculptures themselves are made of concrete and other materials. They are mostly human figures—we are especially fond of The Lost Correspondent, showing a solitary writer sitting at a typewriter—and as the sculptures have aged they've become covered in corals and are now mixed in with the area's abundant sea life. Taylor is now working on a bigger version of the sculpture park off the coast of Cancun.

Less pleasantly, land mines have been dropped into water to destroy ships and subs. "Naval mines," as these weapons are called, are said to have first been described in a 14th century Chinese military treatise. They've stuck around. According to a 1998 U.S. military report, "at least 30 countries are actively engaged in the development and manufacture of sophisticated new mines. Of these, 20 are known mine exporters. An even greater number of nations possess the ability to lay land mines. Although most of the world's stockpiled mines are relatively old, they remain lethal and easily upgraded." Feeling alarmed? Me, too. Luckily—unless you're a dolphin—the U.S. has trained dolphins to clear mines.

Military gear has been dropped in the water for benign purposes as well. A stash of armored military vehicles has been sunk off the coast of South Carolina as artificial reeds, to provide fish habitat (which in turn, provides fishermen and women with an easier catch). As natural reefs continue to decline, other foreign entities have also been used as artificial reefs: subway cars, decommissioned ships, garbage trucks, even human remains. These reefs have not always worked out as intended—and we're not talking about the reefs made of human remains here. In 1972, hundreds of thousands of used tires were dropped in the ocean off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale to be used as an artificial reef. Instead of providing shelter to sea life, the tires have harmed an area of the ocean floor equivalent to 31 football fields. The tires are being removed from the ocean by Army and Navy diving crews—73,000 have been taken out so far, though the operation is now suspended while the military pursues other priorities.

Other tires dropped in the ocean have a bigger value. A 1925 Brescia Type-22 Roadster was pulled from a Swiss lake after having been dumped – it's said – in 1936. The roadster was possibly dumped by a Swiss customs official after the car's French owner failed to pay taxes on the car; another version of the story has Polish architect Marco Schmuklerski buying the car and then trying to hide it in the lake, eventually losing it to the waters. The car was pulled up from Lake Maggiore in July 2009—with its tires still holding air—and sold at auction in 2010 for an astonishing $367,741.

Having nothing at all to do with vehicles is a submerged temple in Thailand. Wat Tilokaram is thought to have been built more than 500 years ago. It was high and dry for most of that time. Then, some seventy years ago, the temple went underwater when a large freshwater lake was created up and around the temple, which these days can be seen poking out of the water and can be visited by boat. Plans to restore the temple by draining the lake – home to aquatic plants and many species of fish – were bandied about, but recently abandoned on the grounds that draining the lake would hurt the temple after all these years under water, and would also hurt local fisherman. In this case, the mountain came to Mohammad, but reportedly more temples in Thailand are now unintentionally going under as sea levels rise.

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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]