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6 Questions About North Dakota's Oil Boom

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Oil Drilling Rig on Badlands; © Lowell Georgia/Corbis

Millions of Americans would do almost anything for a job right now. Our bloated deficit has become the central issue in our political discourse. Yet in a far-flung prairie town less than a hundred miles from the Canadian border, a revolution is happening. Unemployment is less than 2%. The state budget has a surplus of $1 billion. Job openings can’t be filled quickly enough, and for many the pay is above $50,000. Welcome to Williston, North Dakota. It’s the scene of a modern American oil boom.

1. Wait, an Oil Boom? How?

It all starts with the Bakken formation, a 25,000 square-mile hunk of rock under the surface of Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan. Oil was discovered here in the early 1950s, but recovering it proved impractical for two reasons: First, the area within the rock formation that contains oil is long and flat. It’s rarely more than 150 feet thick (in some places less than fifty). This makes it distinctly unattractive for traditional vertical drilling. And second, the oil is trapped inside layers of rock called shale.

When this field was discovered, oil was cheap, easy, and in everyone’s backyard. Chasing a thin sliver of petroleum trapped inside rock layers two miles below the earth’s surface made little economic sense. But fast forward half a century. Oil is hovering around $100 a barrel and there are no new elephant fields (an industry term for giants like Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar). Tapping North Dakota's oil reservoir is now economically viable.

Two technologies helped make North Dakota’s black gold rush a reality. The first is a technique called horizontal drilling, which is exactly what it sounds like. In the past, drilling in any direction other than straight down wasn’t very practical. Within the past ten years, new monitoring equipment has been introduced that allows horizontal wells to be drilled in perfect arcs up to two miles. Instead of punching right through a reservoir like the Bakken, engineers can now travel through it.

The second is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. Those of you who saw the documentary Gasland are familiar with the controversial technique, which was pioneered by oil and gas giant Halliburton. It involves shooting water, sand, and chemicals at the rock structures that contain oil, then breaking them open like a treasure chest. Think of it as a really powerful water gun.

With these new technologies, an area that ten years ago had negligible production is now pumping out almost half a million barrels a day. And that growth should continue. In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the amount of recoverable oil within the Bakken Formation was 3.0 to 4.3 billion barrels. That was before the discovery of a second, similar field nearby, called Three Forks. Harold Hamm, the billionaire founder of a company that holds more rights than anyone in the area, claims it will ultimately yield up to 24 billion barrels.

2. Is That a Lot?

How much oil is 24 billion barrels? Well, if Hamm is correct, this would easily qualify as one of the largest fields in the world. It could support the entirety of U.S. demand for almost four years by itself.

To make matters even more mind-boggling, this is all part of a larger movement towards the embrace of fracking and horizontal drilling in America. If oil in these harder-to-reach places is accounted for all across the nation, there may be as many as two trillion barrels of oil in the ground—twice the total of Middle East reserves, and enough to power U.S. demand get the idea.

3. Where Do All These Oil Workers Live?

An employee at one of the oil firms talked with NPR about the complete transformation of Williston since the boom. In the last four years, the city has almost doubled in size. They used to build five new homes a year in Williston. This year they've built 2,000. Next year they’re planning to build twice as many. Homes can’t be built quickly enough to accommodate the invasion of oil workers.

In the meantime, where do they live? Many purchase RVs and make do while waiting for more permanent arrangements. Here's the rub: they pay upwards of $1,000 a month for parking spaces. Their other option is to live in “man camps” — prefabricated dorms that house up to 20,000 workers in the area. (The average wait time in line at Wal-Mart is half an hour.) Ultimately, the boom could bring 45,000 long-term jobs to the area, and that’s in a state with fewer than a million people.

4. How Does U.S. Oil Production Compare to the Rest of the World?

After seventeen years of consecutive decreases, American oil production has increased for three straight years. In 2008 we imported almost two-thirds of our oil — now, it’s less than half. The U.S. could be producing almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia within ten years. Within five, we’ll likely pass Russia as the world’s leading energy supplier. The power center of world oil production is slowly shifting from the eastern hemisphere to the west. This will have enormous and uncertain geopolitical implications.

5. What's the Downside?

No one will be surprised to hear there are significant environmental concerns. The list of possible consequences of fracking reads almost like the blurb of potential side-effects at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial. Fracking has a reputation for ruining the groundwater in nearby areas. When it’s used to recover natural gas, methane sometimes leaks into the air, which in some instances can cause explosions. It may also trigger earthquakes. Residents in places where gas leaks have been detected complain of various physical ailments, including headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds, dizziness, and muscle spasms. This is all outside of general concerns about our continued dependence on fossil fuels and their effects on the environment.

6. What Other Industries Are Booming in Williston?

Strippers seem to be raking it in. According to a recent CNN Money article, exotic dancers at the town's two strip clubs are earning $2,000 a night. One club — Whispers — has received applications from Hawaii, Alaska, Germany and the Czech Republic.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]