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Now Open: 8 New Thrill Rides at America's Theme Parks

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Whether it's for a day trip, a getaway weekend, or a full-blown vacation, there's a theme park near you, and many of them have new rides to deliver the biggest thrills yet -if you're into that sort of thing.

1. Dollywood: Wild Eagle

The big trend in roller coasters is the "winged" ride, in which the carriage is much wider than the tracks, and riders are seated over ...nothing. Not only does this add to the thrill, but it also enables the ride to carry many more people on a trip. Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, unveiled the new Wild Eagle winged coaster in March, in order to say it had the first winged coaster in America. You can see some POV videos of the ride at the ride's website. My two eighth-graders went to Dollywood a couple of weeks ago, but only one could ride because you have to be 50 inches tall to be admitted. She is, in fact, 57 inches tall, but was told she was too small to be secured in the ride. That's okay with me.

2. Six Flags New England: Goliath

When I was a child, I was envious of those who could visit Six Flags Over Texas. So when Six Flags Over Georgia opened, my family drove ten hours to see it (the interstate has been completed since then). Now you can't swing a cat without hitting a Six Flags park, so there should be one near you. Springfield, Massachusetts is the home of Six Flags New England. Their new roller coaster called Goliath lives up to its name, as the structure soars to twenty stories tall and has a 102-foot-tall vertical loop. Riders are suspended underneath the track, which adds more thrill. Goliath is the "tallest inverted boomerang coaster in the world," and joins ten other roller coasters at the park.

3. Busch Gardens: Verbolten

Busch Gardens, a division of Sea World, has opened a German automobile-themed roller coaster named Verbolten at their park in Williamsburg, Virginia. Part of the ride is through a tunnel with a immersive "driving" experience projected around the riders. Riders feel as if they are traveling through the scary Black Forest, and if you follow the projections, they don't always stay on the road! Watch a video of a journalist's ride on opening day.

4. Hersheypark: Skyrush

Skyrush is the new partially winged roller coaster at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The train is arranged with four seats across each row, the outer two of which are floorless.  The first climb is 200 feet up, then a rush down at 75 miles per hour! Skyrush, which opened this past weekend, had to be super big and super fast, as it joins 11 other roller coasters in the park. A poll by those who have ridden Skyrush gives it mostly high praise.

5. Holiday World: Mammoth

The new ride Mammoth at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, is the world's longest water coaster. At seven stories tall, this ride boasts "air time" even in boats, due to its hydromagnetic drive. There are two styles of boats: round boats that mean part of your ride might not be forward-facing, and long boats in which you'll be able to see where you're headed. Well, maybe not always, since some of the water drops are enclosed in darkness. The Mammoth has been open only since May 11th. Early reviews say the feel of the water ride is surprisingly similar to a mechanical roller coaster.

6. Six Flags Great America: X-Flight

Six Flags Great America is in Gurnee, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. The new ride there for 2012 is X-Flight, a 3,000-foot-long winged roller coaster. It features a barrel roll and a zero-gravity roll, giving you the sensation of complete weightlessness -for a short time.

7. SeaWorld San Diego: Manta

The new roller coaster named Manta at Sea World in San Diego is appropriately ocean-themed. Not the biggest or the fastest coaster around, the Manta has some unique features: it travels through an aquarium full of manta rays, then into a tunnel with images projecting an underwater show for riders that wraps almost all the way around them. The ride opened to the public this past Saturday.

8. Six Flags Fiesta Texas: SkyScreamer

Six Flags Fiesta Texas is in San Antonio; not to be confused with Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington. The San Antonio park recently debuted the SkyScreamer, which is not a roller coaster, but an aerial spinning ride. You'll be taken 200 feet up and slung around in a 98-foot-diameter arc at up to 40 miles per hour. The promotional materials mention the lovely view from that height; the view would be the least of my thoughts. The SkyScreamer opened this past Sunday. Photograph by Wikipedia user Jpp858.

Opening Soon

Some rides are still in the preparation process, and should open later this summer. Check the websites for updates before you book your trip, if the new ride is what you're going for.

Several Six Flags parks already have Superman-themed rides, and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California, will be joining in the fun soon with Superman: Ultimate Flight.

Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California has their own archvillain version called Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom, which should open to the public some time this summer.

In the Baltimore/Washington, DC area, Six Flags America is preparing a ride called Apocalypse.

Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, will open a new thrill ride based on the film Despicable Me.

Are any of these thrill rides enough to send you on a trip to a park? Or do you have one planned already?

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”