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11 Weird and Wonderful Webcams

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In the go-go 90s, the Internet was new and we were all excited about the potential of "webcams," a new technology allowing tiny images, almost-live, to be viewed online. Nearly twenty years after the advent of the technology, the bloom is off the webcam rose, and today the webcam landscape is a bit barren. But fear not, dear reader: I've combed through the remaining sites and collected 11 fun webcams for your amusement (and/or bemusement). Fire up Mosaic and follow me!

1. Live Bubbles On Command

One of the more technically impressive webcams is the Garden Bubble Cam. It requires you to enable a Java plugin (it took me three browsers and some fiddling to make that part work), then you click the "Bubbles" button and wait about thirty seconds...then you're treated to a live blast of bubbles on the back patio of a south Florida home! It really works!

The technical explanation is impressive (the bubble sprayer holds seven gallons of bubble solution!), and their FAQ is also worth a look. Statistics nerds may enjoy the insanely detailed stats page. Because you're watching an actual live bubble machine, you may witness others starting the bubbles as well! Also note that this cam doesn't look like much at night, as it's outdoors and there isn't artificial light on the bubble garden. Here's a festive bubble photo from Christmas:

2. Live View from a Keyhole

This cam looks into a London flat through a keyhole. In my viewing, I saw what appeared to be the corner of a room, with a light on, and nothing happening. Checking in a few hours later, I saw the same (apparently live) view. Enjoy the view of mostly nothing.

Keyhole View

3. Pitch Dripping into a Cup, One Drop Per Decade

As I pointed out recently, this is a spectacularly boring webcam: if we're lucky, a drop may fall within the next year. After that, we've got another dozen or so years before the next drop falls. Check it out!

Picture of the Pitch Drop Experiment from University of Queensland featuring the current (2007) custodian, John Mainstone (picture taken in 1990), two years into the life of the 8th dropPhoto from Wikimedia Commons: Picture of the Pitch Drop Experiment from University of Queensland featuring the current (2007) custodian, John Mainstone (picture taken in 1990), two years into the life of the 8th drop.

4. Hallway in Topeka, Kansas

Have you ever wanted to watch people waiting in a hallway...live? Now you can! From this cam's page:

This is the current situation outside of the County Treasurer's Office (updated every five seconds).

The Treasurer’s Dept. will open to the Public Monday through Friday from 8:00 am until 4:30 pm except the last business day of the month will be 7:30 am until 5:30 pm at both office locations. There will be no processing of title work after 4:00 pm every day.

This cam is impressive because there are definitely things happening (people sitting, reading, checking their phones, etc.) but it's also insanely boring. At least it's useful...if you're in Topeka and you want to know how much of a wait you'll have trying to get into Treasurer Larry Wilson's office. Get your hallway on.

Hallway in Topeka

5. Microscopic Life

This cam shows videos of various lifeforms in water, under a microscope. The site also appears to be largely an ad for microscopes, but hey: watch out for tiny bugs!

Microscopic Life

6. Grass Growing

"Mr. Grass" has been providing a live view of his front yard (warning: music auto-plays) since 2005. It's surprisingly interesting, partly because the view includes part of his driveway and the street in front of his house, so you can see cars drive by. And, of course, the grass does grow (as evidenced by various screenshots throughout the years, lower down on the page). Be sure to check out the "Click for Super-Size!" button at the top of the site, and check out the Grass Blog for some notable events in the history of Mr. Grass's lawn.

Grass Growing

7. Statue of Liberty

The Streaming LibertyCam is pretty impressive -- it has controls that allow you to zoom in on the statue, or take in a wider view. As I watched, two boats and two planes sped by, just past sunset. Check out the "Hall of Fame" shots below the cam for some great screen grabs.

Statue of Liberty

8. Niagara Falls

The Niagara Falls Cam uses the same technology as the aforementioned Statue of Liberty Cam, allowing you to zoom in. It periodically pans around to show different views of the area. I didn't spot anyone going over in a barrel, though.

Niagara Falls

9. A Big Fir Tree

The Christmas Tree Treasures webcam follows the adventures of a 160-foot tall fir tree located in Blue River, Oregon. Around Christmas time, it's decorated with lights and such. During the non-Christmas season it's just, you know, a really big tree.

Christmas Tree

10. The Northern Lights

The Canadian Space Agency provides the AuroraMAX camera, a view of the Northern Lights in Canada. Because the lights are only visible at night, and they aren't always that spectacular, this is sort of an "event webcam." Follow AuroraMAX on Twitter for tips on good viewing opportunities, and a gallery of movies shows some examples of past views.

AuroraMAX

11. Hissing Cockroaches

Just when you thought you were safe with boring cameras showing safe subjects, I had to expose you to the ultra-high-quality Roach Cam, a project of the University of South Carolina. It claims to have been online since 1993 (!). If you don't believe it's live, take a screenshot and then refresh the page, comparing the two images. Then squirm and freak out a little. Go on, I dare you.

Roaches

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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