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When Can We Have A Space Elevator?

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The space shuttle's retirement has prompted me to think a bit harder about the future of the American space program. I always took the space shuttle, and the giant rockets that propelled it, for granted, assuming they were the best and only method of launching things into space. It turns out, however, that somebody thought of making a space elevator way back in the 19th century, and we've had the technology to create one in a lower-gravity environment like the moon or Mars since the 70s.
So what would a space elevator be, theoretically? It's a fairly simple concept, actually -- it would be a giant cable, one end tethered to the ground (or possibly to a mobile platform in the ocean) at the equator, the other end towed past geostationary orbit and attached to a big artificial counterweight in space. I'm notoriously bad at grasping concepts that involve math or physics, but the idea seems designed to place the system's center of mass exactly at geostationary orbit over the equatorial spot where the base of the cable is anchored, thus keeping the whole thing more or less upright (with maybe one degree of bend at certain spots along the cable). Then a cable car of sorts -- or multiple cars -- could climb and descend the "beanstalk," as some call it, at will. The cost and energy savings of transporting materials to space in this manner is potentially huge; currently, it costs around $11,000 to blast a pound of payload into space. With a space elevator, it'd be more like $100 -- just slightly more expensive than overnight FedEx, in other words.

Of course, there are challenges, primary among them developing a cable from material that's both extremely light and extremely strong. Carbon nanotube technology seems to be promising, but despite a number of X-prize-type contests over the past five years or so, we haven't quite clinched it yet. Japan seems especially excited about the prospect of a space elevator -- in fact, an American-penned book called "Leaving the Planet by Space Elevator" was a best-seller there in 2008. From Wikipedia:

This has led to a Japanese announcement of intent to build a Space Elevator at a projected price tag of £5 billion. In a report by Leo Lewis, Tokyo correspondent of The Times newspaper in England, plans by Shuichi Ono, chairman of the Japan Space Elevator Association, are unveiled. Lewis says: "Japan is increasingly confident that its sprawling academic and industrial base can solve those [construction] issues, and has even put the astonishingly low price tag of a trillion yen (£5 billion/ $8 billion) on building the elevator. Japan is renowned as a global leader in the precision engineering and high-quality material production without which the idea could never be possible."

That was a few years ago, though, and Japan surely has other things on its collective mind right now. All things considered, however, this really does seem like a great -- and much more efficient -- way to get ourselves and our stuff into space. I wouldn't be surprised at all if space elevators became a reality in my lifetime.

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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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