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Beautiful, Alien Iceland

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Iceland is a landscape that's still being born. While much of the world's once-jagged peaks have gradually worn into sloping hills, gushing rivers and mighty waterfalls have slowed to a trickle of their former flow, and remnants of the last Ice Age melted long ago, it's not so in Iceland. This a young land, one that's still being shaped by the same primeval forces that made much of the world -- fire and ice. Its massive Vatnajokull glacier, which dominates about 10% of the country's landmass, is so large that it's technically classified as an ice cap. The European and North American tectonic plates meet in Iceland, and more than 130 volcanoes have sprung forth from the gap between them. Iceland has only been populated since about the middle of the ninth century, but already in that short time there have been dozens of major eruptions and lava flows, many of them devastating to human life. Almost every minute of the day there is an earthquake happening somewhere in Iceland.

It's also one of the least densely populated nations in the world -- only about 320,000 people live there, three-quarters of them in the relatively warm and urbane capital city, Reykjavik. The rest of the country is wild and wooly, and of immense geological variation. It's like the world's most interesting interactive geology textbook. My wife and I spent the last two weeks exploring it -- we rented a 4x4, crossed our fingers that we wouldn't regret declining the extra insurance, and lit out for the countryside.

Click on any picture to open a larger version.

I often say of places I've been that "it was like being on the moon," but for nowhere has that been more true than Iceland. I'm not the only one who thinks so -- in 1965 and 1967, American astronauts trained for moon missions in Iceland's barren, volcanic highlands. Vistas like the one above -- rocky, glacier-carved valleys, touched with subtle shades of green in summer only -- stretch for endless miles. (By the way, those switchback roads can be tricky when the wind's gusting at 60mph, as it was when I took this picture. It was a struggle just to open the car door against the wind.)

Something else you'll find in the unpopulated highlands are these bright-orange huts. A peek inside the window reveals a bunk bed, a wind-up radio and a box of emergency rations. They're emergency shelters for hikers. You'll find them only in the most remote and dangerous parts of the country, and it's illegal to use them in anything other than a life-threatening situation. In Iceland, where the weather can change dramatically with little warning, even the most prepared hikers might suddenly have need of one.

Even the hardy Icelandic sheep -- ubiquitous on restaurant menus and far outstripping Iceland's human population in numbers -- can't survive a winter spent outdoors, and when we were there, herders were roaming the countryside rounding them up, bringing them back down from the mountains to their respective farms. We got caught in one such drive, which was blocking this road (a fairly important one) such that we had to turn around and find another route.

Some sheep get lost in the shuffle, though, or wander so far that the herders never find them. Inevitably, they wind up like this:

Not everything in Iceland is brown and gray -- there's a lot of green to be found, especially if you count the pale, pillowy moss that seems to cover half the country. It's most typical on fields of lava rock, where it can turn an otherwise barren-looking landscape into a magical place -- just the kind of spot where you might expect to run into one of Iceland's famous huldafolk, or hidden people; elves, trolls, fairies and the like.

This mossy rock-scape was dominated by a black-as-night volcanic cinder cone, the unpronounceable name of which I have replaced with my own: MOUNT OMINOUS.

A quick aside -- if anyone from the Icelandic tourism ministry reads this, I have an idea for a new slogan: Iceland: I'm lichen it!

The moss does something else too: it makes places like the ones pictured above absolutely impenetrable. It's more than six inches thick in some spots, and tends to cover over gaping holes between the rocks, turning an otherwise simple hike into a treacherous, ankle-breaking ordeal. In one of Iceland's weirder settlement-age sagas, Eyrbyggja, Vermundur the Slender of Bjarnarhöfn returns from Norway with two beserkers (warriors who fought in a state of frenzy) but can't handle them on his own, so he gives them to his brother, Víga-Styrr (Killer Styrr). (Indeed, the sagas spend a great deal of time cataloging the exploits of early Iceland's many skilled murderers.) One of the berserkers falls in love with Styrr's daughter, so Styrr makes him a deal: if he and his friend can clear a path through the mossy lava field on Styrr's farm, Styrr will give the berserker his daughter's hand in marriage. The berserkers quickly complete this monumental task, but Styrr renegs on the deal, locks them in a sauna, then spears them to death when they try to escape. The path they supposedly made is still there, and the area -- Berserkjahraun -- is named for their famous exploit.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking. He locked them in a sauna? Yep, it might sound odd to modern ears, but sauna culture has existed in Iceland for more than a thousand years, and when heated by untempered, natural geothermal steam, those suckers can get skin-flayingly hot. (I tried one of these traditional saunas -- you can hear the spring water burbling down below the floorboards -- and the only way to keep the temperature tolerable is to open the door.) They say that the gods made up for Iceland's winters being so dark and cold by gifting the country with an abundance of super-heated water. Hot springs are everywhere in Iceland, and they're beautiful, a little smelly, and when treated right, great for bathing and steaming in. All that hot water is great for Iceland's environment, too: 90% of their energy comes from it.

These billows of natural steam, near Lake Myvatn, are a pretty typical site in Iceland's geothermal areas.

Nearby, a steam vent. You can go right up to it if you want -- and burn the hell out of yourself.

In the freezing rain, this geothermal river steams.

We found this stream alongside a hiking trail. Its water is so hot it would take the skin right off your hand if you touched it.

Swimming in geothermal mineral water is practically the national pastime. I spent many an hour immersed in silky blue silica water, including this magical place, in Lake Myvatn. They mix the 100 degree Celsius hot spring water with cold to make it tolerable.

If you don't feel like paying for access to man-made swimmable hot-pools, you can find plenty of free, natural ones -- like this place, an underground cave filled with hot-tub-temperature mineral water.

Another thing Iceland has in spades are waterfalls. So many you almost get tired of them -- almost. This is Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. It's difficult to feel the scale of it in this picture, because there were no people around to include in the photo for perspective. (That's right -- the largest waterfall in Europe, and I was alone. That said, it's 30km from the highway along some fearsome washboard roads, but still.)

Speaking of roads, this was, as you might have gathered by now, a road trip. We did the classic ring road journey, traveling clockwise around the country on its main highway, the 1, a winding two lanes that are not always paved and can be at turns breathtaking and hair-raising. (That's the 1 pictured at the top of the post, by the way, switchbacking off into a distant fjord.) Here are some shots of the road I took along the way.

On the south coast:

In the mountains of the north:

At Snafelles National Park. That's a glacier behind us -- the same one Jules Verne used as the gateway to the world's bowels in Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Glaciers seem to be everywhere, but even in Iceland, they're melting more each year. I took this on a guided hike up Vatnajokull:

The ice is dirty because ash from recent volcanic eruptions (like three months ago) settled all over it. That haze in the distance is ash that still hasn't settled.

Down at ground level, this glacier calves icebergs into a glorious lagoon which is -- rightfully so -- is the most photographed spot in Iceland.

The bergs are either washed out to sea or deposited along a nearby black sand beach, where they slowly melt (and you can play with them).

All those glaciers are what carved Iceland's amazing fjords -- long, narrow inlets framed by steep cliffs, which line the edges of the country like mountainous fingers reaching out to sea. The roads in Iceland tend to weave through each and every fjord, which makes the going a bit slow, but the views are so beautiful you don't mind slowing down.

This is Ejyafjordur, in the north, an inlet of the Greenland Sea.

Grundarfjordur at dusk:

But the best, most crowning glory of the trip was the night I got to see the northern lights for the first time. It was cold but clear, and they hummed and shifted dimly above the horizon. I walked to the edge of the small town where we were staying, away from lights, to an airfield overlooking a small bay. The night was silent, but for the wind and some nocturnal birds calling in the distance.

I set my tripod up on either side of a wind sock, which stood at attention in the chill breeze. In both shots, notice the tongues of glacier peeking out in the background.

It was an incredible, awe-inspiring trip. Anyone who's a fan of natural beauty and wide-open landscapes should book a ticket before the value of the Icelandic Kroner goes any higher!

You can order high-resolution prints of the photos in this essay here.

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.