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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 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.


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.


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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]