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Strange Geographies: Quick Facts About the Netherlands

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I just got back from a week in the Netherlands (and Belgium and Luxembourg) and my head's still spinning -- from the jet-lag, heavy beers, and dizzying awesomeness of that part of the world. I'm just starting to go through the intimidating mountain of images and videos I took while there, but just to kick off what will be probably several weeks of occasional posts about the region, I wanted to do a quick overview of Holland, which as it turns out has a lot more to offer than tulips and wooden shoes (though it's got those, too).

The first thing you notice about Amsterdam are its canals. The second is all the bikes. It's got more of both than anywhere else -- more canals than Venice, and more bikes than people, some 1,000,000 unsexy-but-practical granny bikes for a population of just 700,000. Decades ago, the city had a lot more cars speeding down its narrow lanes, but Amsterdammers realized that fitting any more automobiles into Amsterdam was going to require paving some of their historic canals. So they decided to encourage bike use by making the city friendly to bikes, building thousands of km of bike lanes and giant bike parking lots (one of which -- the top of a multi-storied structure -- is pictured below) and unfriendly to cars. It's very expensive to own a car, buy gas for a car, park a car, or even get a license to drive a car in Holland -- the test costs more than 500 euros, and if you fail, which is easy to do, you've got to pay it all over again on subsequent attempts. Little wonder then that so many people ride bikes. It's the fastest way to get around -- and fun, too!

Everyone rides -- little kids, old people, businesspeople, couples on dates (one does the pedaling while the other rides on the luggage carrier). It's not uncommon to see extremely well-dressed people riding bikes, either. This may be part of the reason that people in Holland don't seem to take themselves too seriously. Vespas and Smartcars are popular, too, though lately in Amsterdam there's been a problem with rowdy gangs of kids picking up the Smarts and tossing them into canals. So, yeah.

One of the reasons that everyone can bike is that the whole country is flat as a pancake. Some parts -- the airport, for instance -- are actually several meters below sea level. (Lucky for them, it's not a tsunami-prone part of the world.) Much of the province of Flevoland was underwater just 30 years ago; the city of Almere, with a population in the hundreds of thousands, was sea bed before a series of massive dike projects turned back the water. The Dutch have been doing this sort of thing for centuries, of course, and as a result of their expertise, the US government turned to them for advice about the best way to repair the levees after Hurricane Katrina. For helping Egypt save countless treasures during a flood in the 80s, the country gave them a museum wing full of priceless antiquities.

Yes, some drugs are legal there, though sold in shops with misleading names -- you'll find various kinds of pot on offer at "coffeeshops" and some varieties of mushrooms and hash at "smart shops" (one is pictured above). The red light district, which wraps around one of the largest and most beautiful old churches in the city, is where hookers strut their stuff in windows (or chat on cell phones, or do their nails). But it's not as if the Dutch are sex-and-drug-crazed maniacs; in fact, the majority of people who visit these places are tourists, and the city of Amsterdam has been clamping down on the spread of both coffeeshops and red light-establishments of late, considering them an unsightly but somewhat necessary nuisance.

Speaking of unsightly nuisances, the more touristy sections of the city are crammed with the same gaudy shops you can find in any city -- but in a touch that seems distinctly Amsterdam, you'll find all sorts of surprises in the nooks and crannies. See the church in the picture above? It's one of the narrowest in the world, built in secret during the Reformation, around 1700, when Catholics were forced underground in many parts of Europe. (The obviously-churchy facade dates from sometime later.) It was closed when I visited, or I totally would've gone in. It's known as the Parrot Church, I assume because of this exterior detail:

They have some great beers in the Netherlands. Sure, you've heard of Heineken and Amstel, but as I discovered in a delightful little pub called t'Arendsnest, which serves only Dutch beer, there are hundreds more. The few I tried rival anything you can get in the US or Belgium. I mean, seriously -- a stout aged in Bruichladdie scotch whisky barrels from 1972? It tastes as good (and strong) as it sounds.

Also, since almost every bar is within spitting distance of a scenic canal, the atmosphere (provided it's not raining) is hard to beat.

75% of the world's flower bulbs come from the Netherlands. It's tough to take a trip anywhere in the country and not pass fields and fields of tulips growing, as I did on a quick jaunt down to Leiden. This is a tiny part of what I saw out the window -- psychedelic stripes of blooming color -- so common a sight, I suppose, that almost no one else in the car with me even bothered to look.

Here's an interesting little fact -- there's almost no abandoned stuff to explore in the Netherlands. Part of the reason I went was to meet up with a Dutch explorer friend and find some abandoned chateaus to photograph the insides of, but to do that we had to drive down to Belgium, where they're plentiful. The Dutch, it seems, don't waste anything, including land or old buildings; as soon as something becomes abandoned, it's knocked down or re-purposed. This probably has something to do with A) the Netherlands being the most densely populated nation in Europe and B) the Dutch being an extraordinarily tidy and practical people. There's also the old cliche that they're penny-pinching cheapskates. While I'm not ready to weigh in on that just yet, I can tell you that they do get as much as they can out of their real estate -- every bathroom in Holland, for instance, contains JUST enough square footage for a sink, a toilet, a shower, and your body. Given that, it's not surprising that haunted-looking ruins like this don't exist there:

That'll have to wait for another post. (Cue spooky laughter.)

All photos © Ransom Riggs

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”