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Rocks that Rock: 8 Stone Giant Sites

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Nature carves wonderful sculptures all over the earth. We saw some in a previous post; now let's take a little trip and see a few more of the many awesome giant rock formations suggested by mental_floss readers.

1. The Old Man of Hoy

The Old Man of Hoy is a 449-foot sea stack on the Orkney Island of Hoy off the coast of Scotland. The red sandstone formation was created by natural erosion in fast-forward, as maps of the area from as recently as 400 years ago have no indication of its existence. The relatively rapid action of wind and water might mean that the stack will not exist 400 years from now. The Old Man is a popular challenge for rock climbers, and was the site of a spectacular BASE jump in 2008. Image by Wikimedia user Finavon.

2. The Devils Marbles

The Devils Marbles are found 393 kilometers north of Alice Springs in Australia's Northern territory, or as the description reads, "in the middle of nowhere". Although most postcards show the two most photogenic, there are many rounded rocks of all sizes strewn about the area. They were formed when a layer of volcanic rock was pushed up to the surface. The layer formed cracks and split into rectangular shapes, which were worn away by erosion until some of the rocks look rather round, while others retain their earlier shape. Aboriginal legend says the rocks, called Karlu Karlu, have supernatural powers and have a sacred place in stories they do not tell to outsiders. The rocks are not to be removed from their natural site. Image by Wikpedia user Iain Whyte.

3. Turnip Rock

Turnip Rock is a formation you'll find on the shore of Lake Huron in Michigan, at the "tip of the thumb" (which makes sense when you look at a map of the state). The rock is on private property, but is seen and photographed by many who travel the Tip of the Thumb Heritage Water Trail by raft, kayak, or other boat. Turnip Rock is just as spectacular surrounded by ice in winter. Image by Dan Depner.

4. Taikhar Chuluu

A large rock stands out in the middle of a plain in Mongolia. The Taikhar chuluu is covered with inscriptions dating back as far as Turkic rule in Mongolia. Those inscriptions were followed by more in the Mongol language, then Tibetan, and even more modern graffiti. Local legend says that a hero encountered a snake at the spot, and after killing it, plugged the hole it came from with this huge rock. Image from mong?ol bi?ig & manju bithe.

5. The Sphinx

In the Bucegi Mountains, a part of the southern Carpathian range in Romania, there's a cliff that resembles a human face, which earned it the name of The Sphinx. Although the Sphinx is a popular tourist attraction, hiking to the site on foot is not recommended because of bears.

6. The 12 Apostles

The 12 Apostles are sea stacks at Port Campbell National Park, on the Victoria coast in Australia. Despite the name, there are only eight stacks in the group (there were nine before one collapsed in 2005). While the limestone in Port Campbell is 15-20 million years old, the sea stacks date back only about 6,000 years, and the stone on the bottom layer is softer than the upper layers. Like the Old Man of Hoy, the existing stacks may only last a few hundred more years -a blink of the eye in geological time. However, erosion will continue to carve new stacks. Image by Wikipedia user Richard Mikalsen.

7. Garni Gorge

The Garni Gorge at the Khosrov Nature Reserve in Armenia is framed by columnar basalt cliffs like those of the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. The rocks lining the gorge are sometimes called the Symphony of Stone because they resemble organ pipes. Image by Wikipedia user Mediacrat.

8. Cappadocia

Göreme is a town in the Cappadocia region of Turkey that is the center of many amazing rock formations. Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia together make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two volcanoes, Erciyes and Hasan left a layer of rock millions of years ago that were later transformed by erosion into several kinds of monoliths. Fairy chimneys are columns with rock caps balanced on top. Natural caves formed in the cliff walls and underneath the ground. Image by Flickr user Nick Leonard.

But humans have also contributed to the site, as they turned the caves into homes and churches in antiquity, which are now protected as cultural as well as natural landmarks. The underground cities of Kaymakl?, Özkonak, and Derinkuyu in Cappadocia were formed from this volcanic rock and were used as homes and shelters from war and religious persecution. Image by Flickr user

See also: Nature's Stone Giants

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]