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5 Places to Almost Die Before You Die

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1. Tiankeng Sinkhole, Xiaozhai, China

When I was 18 years old, I took a trip with a few buddies of mine to Lake George in upstate New York. We had heard that there was a great spot for cliff jumping on the far side of the lake, and we found it without too much trouble. It was a fifty-foot sheer rock wall that dropped straight into deep water. Hyped up on adrenaline and Red Bull, we scrambled to the top.


"Me first!" my friend shouted, running to the edge. He quickly stopped. What seemed like a short drop from the bottom now seemed like a very large drop from the top. This, mind you, was fifty feet into water. I cannot imagine jumping 2,164 feet into the world's largest sinkhole.

The Tiankeng sinkhole near Ziaozhai, China, attracts some of the world's craziest individuals. I'm not referring to lacrosse goalies, drummers, or Tom Cruise. No, I'm talking about B.A.S.E. jumpers, the wild individuals who get their thrills from parachuting off extremely high platforms (including buildings, antenna, spans, and earth, hence the acronym B.A.S.E.). The extreme sport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, with an estimated one fatality for every sixty participants.

The sinkhole itself is the shape of an inverted bell and was created over time as an underground river eroded the limestone walls. From the top, it looks like an underground rainforest. From the bottom... well, I couldn't tell you.

2. N57 40.390 E12 29.000, Västra Götaland, Sweden

When bored, I often try to Google fun activities in my area. Unfortunately, a search of "fun things to do in Durham, NC" doesn't return much but advertisements for strip clubs.


One day, however, after searching through a few pages, I found something interesting. As it turns out, one of the most extreme geocaches in the world is located in Durham's storm drain system. I didn't know what a geocache was, but the words "extreme," "world," and "system" caught my eye. I turned to Google once again.


As it turns out, Geocaching is a sport that roughly resembles an international treasure hunt. Officially started in 2000 by David Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon, the game is simple. Someone posts clues and the coordinates of the cache, or treasure, and someone else tries to find it using a handheld GPS. Then, he/she takes what's inside the cache and replaces it with something else. There are caches everywhere: putting my zip code into geocaching.com revealed over thirty within a five-mile radius of my position. After some more research into Durham's extreme cache, I came to the conclusion that it was extremely dangerous. The Durham cache seems like child's play, though, compared to the extreme cache in Vastra Gotaland, Sweden.


The description on geocaching.com makes it pretty clear that the Vastra Gotaland cache is not for amateurs. "No cache is worth dying for!" it says. It further discourages anyone from attempting to find it unless he or she "has a serious death wish, is immortal, has more than three lives left, or is very stupid and not afraid of heights."


With a description like that, how could you afford not to snag this cache before you die?

3. The Graveyard of the Atlantic, Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

I wish I had a cool shipwreck story to start off a blurb entitled "The Graveyard of the Atlantic." Sadly, however, I don't. I was once almost kidnapped while on a cruise ship, but the ship never wrecked and the kidnapping was botched. Besides, who hasn't almost been kidnapped these days?


Instead, I'm going to jump right into the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Figuratively, of course. It's not known as a graveyard for nothing: in the past 600 years, more than 600 ships have been wrecked along this small strip of North Carolina coast. For those of you who don't speak math, that's an average of one shipwreck every year for the last six centuries. For an area that's generally known for its warm, sunny beaches, that's a lot of sunken ships.


The turbulent waters around Cape Hatteras are a result of two great ocean currents meeting and are responsible for the area's nickname. From the north comes the chilly Labrador Current, and from the south comes the toasty Gulf Stream. When the two meet, they create a sailor's nightmare in the form of rough waters and shallow sandbars.


Inclement weather also contributes to the abundance of shipwrecks. Hurricanes frequently move up the North Carolina coast, and storms are a common occurrence.


Granted, nature is not solely responsible for all of the shipwrecks off Cape Hatteras. Piracy has destroyed many boats, the Civil War took a few more, and German U-Boats added to the collection. From the shore, tourists can often see the eerie masts of long-sunken ships rising out of the water. While Cape Hatteras might be a beautiful spot to vacation, it might not be the best place to try out your new yacht.

4. Space, Space, The Milky Way Galaxy

There are a lot of images that come to mind when I think of space: aliens, lasers, horrible death at the hands of alien lasers. Needless to say, none of them are very pleasant. Which is why, for the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would pay $200,000 for a visit.


Yet that's exactly what approximately 300 people are currently signed up to do with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. On December 7, 2009, Branson revealed the SpaceShip Two, his newest rocket plane. While it hasn't been put into operation yet, prototypes look both frightening and awesome.


The sixty-foot long SpaceShip Two will be able to travel at Mach 3, providing clients with approximately six minutes of weightlessness during a two and a half hour journey. Up to six passengers can fly at a time, meaning that you can bring friends. The ship can also accommodate two pilots, which seems like your best bet for experiencing weightlessness if you don't have 200,000 bucks to blow.


From the vantage point of space, views are supposedly spectacular. There are, however, several risks incurred when traveling beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Other than the aforementioned aliens, there is the possibility of the craft malfunctioning. Indeed, astronaut is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. While the experience is sure to be out of this world, there is one important thing to remember: in space, no one can hear you scream.

5. Annapurna, Himalaya Mountain Range, Nepal


Image via Wikimedia Commons user Leridant

I have often found that the craziest things in life come in sixes. For instance, I once met a group of fourteen-year-old sextuplet orphans who ran a circus. The six of them put on some of the most ridiculous acts I have ever seen. There are six basic animal groups, and animals are pretty wild. There are also six peaks that fall under the name "Annapurna," and they are the deadliest (by percentage) mountains in the world.

Annapurna I is the highest of the six peaks, the others being Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Annapurna IV, Gangapurna, and Annapurna South. Of all the places to visit on the list that could almost kill you, Annapurna is the most likely to actually do the job.

Since the first summit by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal in 1950, forty-one percent of the people who have attempted to summit the mountains have died. Although more people have been killed on Everest, its eight percent mortality rate makes it seem easy by comparison. Even K2, the second deadliest mountain in the world, only has a twenty-five percent mortality rate.

Avalanches are primarily responsible for the mountainous deaths, although climbers have also been killed by extreme cold and falling ice. For the roughly 130 people who have actually succeeded in summiting Annapurna I, the views are probably similar to looking out the window of SpaceShip Two. For the rest of us, backpacking around Annapurna is typically said to be some of the best in the world.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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