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11 Questionable Suggestions for Raising the Titanic

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In the 100 years since the hulking ship slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic, a wealth of ideas have been offered for how to bring it back up – many of them proposed before the ship was even located by Bob Ballard and his crew in 1985. Let’s take a look at 11 of the weird brainstorms offered up over the last century.

1. Fill It With Ping Pong Balls

One of the most commonly cited ideas for raising the ship is one that calls for filling it with ping pong balls and letting their buoyancy raise it to the surface. This idea poses a lot of problems – like how exactly you’d get the ping pong balls down to the ship, and how you’d deal with the fact that the water pressure at the ship’s depth would instantly flatten them. However, the general idea was proven to be possible on a smaller vessel during an episode of MythBusters.

2. Inject It With Vaseline

According to an article written just after the ship was located by Bob Ballard’s team in 1985, a “British underwater salvage expert” proposed filling a series of polyester bags with 180,000 tons of Vaseline and placing them inside the hull of Titanic. Apparently that would do something magical. But that isn’t even the craziest idea the article cited; that would be…

3. Turn It Into a Giant Ice Cube

In case you’ve forgotten, Titanic was sunk by a gigantic block of ice. So, proposing an idea where the wreckage of the ship is sprayed with liquid nitrogen in order to turn it into an enormous ice cube is at best ironic and at worst pretty disrespectful to those who lost their lives aboard her. Needless to say, that idea didn’t really float with anyone.

4. Pump It Full of Boiling Wax

Wax floats when it solidifies, so why not just transport an insane amount of hot wax several miles down into the ocean, pour it into the ship, and wait for it to cool. It’s almost too easy – yet nobody wanted to try it.

5. Bring up a Small Piece – For a Large Price

In 1996, a commercial attempt was made to raise a 21-ton portion of Titanic’s hull. The effort to bring up the 24’ x 16’ section of the ship was followed by 1,700 people aboard a nearby cruise ship, each of whom had paid anywhere from $1,800 and $6,000 for the honor of watching the action being captured by underwater cameras. The portion of the ship was just 70 yards from hitting fresh air for the first time in over eight decades when the lines hoisting it up snapped and sent it plummeting miles back down to the ocean floor.

6. Suck It to the Surface With Magnets

Roughly a year after its sinking – and 72-odd years before it was actually found in pieces – an architect named Charles Smith had the idea of finding the sunken ship and raising it by attaching electromagnets to both the ship’s hull and a cable attached to a barge on the surface. As the barge reeled in the cable, it would bring the 882-foot vessel with it.

7. Get a Huge Claw or an Enormous Scoop

A variety of plans have been talked about throughout the years to either develop a claw large enough to grab and raise the ship (like a gigantic version of that claw-dropping arcade game) or, conversely, create a huge scoop of some kind to dig under the ship and raise it gingerly upward. None of these have materialized.

8. Reverse-Engineer the Atlantic Ocean's Water

One idea called for the creation of a “deep water electrolytic process” designed to extract hydrogen and oxygen from ocean water – and use them to fill a series of containers attached to the ship. The plan was too complicated and expensive, and was never attempted.

9. Just Blow It Up

Just five days after the sinking of Titanic in 1912, an article in The New York Evening Journal detailed an idea being considered by Vincent Astor, whose father John Jacob Astor, the richest man aboard Titanic, had gone down with the ship. The idea called for locating and blasting apart the wreckage of Titanic with dynamite, the hope being that the explosion would dislodge the body of his father, sending it back up to the surface. In the article, a shipping expert is quoted:

“Having found the boat, the rest would not be difficult, although we would be compelled to completely wreck the boat. A large quantity of gun cotton, between 300 and 400 pounds, heavily weighted, would be dropped into the wreckage.

"An electric wire, connected with a battery, would be 'touched off'. We could use other explosives, if necessary, and the force of the explosions would be sure to bring all of the bodies to the surface."

10. Fill It With Compressed Air (In Order to Win the Cold War)

Did you know that in 1980 the United States successfully raised Titanic to the surface and sailed it into New York Harbor because they’d discovered that it contained a mysterious substance that could help knock Russian missiles out of the air? How did you miss that? Here, take a look:

OK, that might have been a clip from the film Raise the Titanic! In the film, which was based on Clive Cussler’s popular book of the same name, the secret to making it work is to inject enough compressed air into the sunken ship.

11. Create an Astonishing 3D Map of It Instead

Why raise Titanic when you can get an incredibly detailed look at it online? Thanks to the Expedition Titanic project, amazing 3D maps of Titanic are being created and an astonishing amount of detail is being assembled on the ship’s wreckage. The project’s website allows visitors to use interactive maps of the wreck and the debris field to learn about the ship – all while leaving it unharmed and in its final resting place.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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