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The Disastrous North Pole Balloon Mission of 1897

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Reaching the North Pole was an international obsession during the late 19th century. Various countries devised plans for becoming the first to reach the pole, but no journey was as fascinating (or as doomed) as Sweden’s S.A. Andree’s mission to cross the Arctic in a hydrogen balloon.

To understand what went wrong with Andree’s mission, we first need to discuss early ballooning. The balloons of the day were certainly exciting for riders, but they had a fatal flaw as vehicles for exploration: nobody had figured out a good way to steer them yet. Once a balloon was up in the air, it was at the mercy of the wind and simply drifted. As Sweden’s most prominent balloonist, Andree had put quite a bit of thought into this conundrum.

Andree eventually sidestepped this problem.

He devised a scheme to steer the balloon by suspending ropes from the basket and dragging them on the ground. The weight of the rope and the friction it generated as it dragged across the ground would enable Andree to steer his balloon. After a series of test runs, Andree became convinced he could steer a hydrogen-filled balloon across the Arctic and over the North Pole.

Andree’s idea captured Sweden’s imagination, but building the balloon and buying the necessary equipment and provisions would be an expensive task. Luckily for Andree, some of Sweden’s biggest names opened their wallets; he received large contributions from King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel to build his balloon, the Eagle.

Andree found two additional crewmembers, engineer Knut Fraenkel and a young photographer named Nils Strindberg. The three set sail in their balloon on July 11, 1897, from Danskøya, an island in the Svalbard archipelago.

Astute readers have probably realized that they’ve never seen a balloon that is steered via drag ropes. There’s a good reason why you haven’t; the method is wildly ineffective. The three drag ropes on the Eagle didn’t even work long enough for the balloon to fully clear its launch area. The balloon drifted into a downward draft almost immediately after taking off and nearly dipped into the icy water. Andree and the crew had to dump sand overboard just to keep the balloon afloat.

The loss of the needed ballast was problematic, but there was even worse news for the Eagle. In just the few moments the balloon had been afloat, all three drag ropes had managed to twist and fall off. In other words, Andree no longer had any way of steering the balloon.

The lost drag ropes would have offered at least some modicum of steering ability, but they were also needed as ballast. After losing more than 1000 pounds of rope and several hundred pounds of sand in the botched takeoff, the balloon developed a tendency to rise too high above the ground. These high altitudes sped up the leakage of hydrogen from the balloon, and after just 10 hours the balloon had lost so much gas that it was frequently bumping and skidding across the Arctic ice. The balloon finally crashed 65 hours into the trip.

That final crash was fairly gentle, and all three crewmembers and their equipment were unharmed. The balloon had been equipped with provisions, guns, tents, sleds, and even a portable boat in case of an emergency landing. Andree had also arranged for two extra depots of emergency supplies to be left for the men on the ice. The crew piled hundreds of pounds of provisions and equipment on the sleds and began the arduous trek to one of the depots. Strindberg used his camera to snap photos of the crash and the team’s progress.

The same lack of foresight that plagued the aerial part of the mission continued into the journey across the ice. None of the men were exactly what you’d call rugged arctic explorers; they were scientists and engineers who had planned on drifting across the North Pole while seated in a basket. Their clothing wasn’t warm enough for the hike. Their supplies were woefully inadequate, although they were able to feed themselves by shooting polar bears and seals. Their sleds, which Andree had designed, were so rigid that they made traversing the ice needlessly difficult.

Worse still, the ice was drifting away from the depot rather than towards it; much of the group’s forward progress evaporated in the face of the backward drift. They eventually decided to reverse course and head for the second depot, but shifting winds made that destination similarly hopeless. After nearly two months of futile hiking, the crew decided to set up a winter camp complete with a makeshift igloo on an ice floe.

This plan worked reasonably well for thee weeks, but in early October the floe began to break up. The crew moved its supplies to Kvitøya, a nearby island, and hoped to winter there. The move to the island is the last reliable record left by the crew. Their cause of death isn’t clear – historians have speculated that the men fell from eating tainted polar bear meat, exhaustion, or hypothermia – but the three crewmembers didn’t survive for more than a few days after moving to the island.

Meanwhile, nobody back home knew what had become of the three men. They obviously hadn’t made it back across the pole, but their fate was a great mystery. It took over three decades for other Arctic dwellers to find the crew of the Eagle. In 1930 the crew of the sealing ship Bratvaag discovered a dilapidated campsite, the remains of the three explorers, their journals, and Strindberg’s undeveloped film.

The seal hunters carried the remains of the three men back to Sweden, where the crew of the Eagle were celebrated as heroes. Amazingly, 93 of Strindberg’s 240 photographs were salvageable, and combined with the crew’s diaries and journals they make an eerie record of the men’s demise and the dangers of unprepared travel through the Arctic Circle.

See more photos of the expedition here. We came across this story while perusing Reddit's Today I Learned section.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]