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Collision Course: A Brief Guide to Earth's Most Interesting Impact Craters

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A Norwegian family arrived at their cabin to open it up for the spring and found a surprise: a large rock had smashed through the roof. It was identified as a 1.3 pound breccia meteorite. It didn't hurt anybody, and its sale price should easily cover the damage to the roof; meteorites are valuable to collectors. But although most meteorites are very small, and to date nobody has been more than bruised by one, some of them are big and make a violent impression where they hit. Here are a few of the more interesting impact craters around:

Barringer Crater, Arizona, USA


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Also known as "Meteor Crater," this was the first crater identified, due to its relatively pristine appearance. It's young, as craters go -- just 50,000 years old -- and it was created by a nickel-iron meteorite about 50 meters across, excavating a crater about 1.2 km across.

Obolon' Crater, Poltava Oblast, Ukraine


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Not all craters are so obvious; sometimes their structure is only apparent in aerial views. Obolon' Crater was detected from the presence of shocked minerals in the surrounding, a tell-tale sign of an impact event. It's 20 km across and is estimated to be about 169 million years old, though there is some evidence it may be quite a bit older. (More on that next.)

Manicouagan Crater, Quebec, Canada


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Visible from space as a ring-shaped lake, this 100 km multi-ringed crater (with a 70 km central ring that is now Manicouagan Reservoir) was created by the impact of a 5km asteroid about 216 million years ago. What's interesting about this crater is that, if you account for plate tectonics and then roll the clock back about 216 million years, this crater has an eerily precise alignment with several other craters: Rochechouart in France, St. Martin in Manitoba, Obolon' in the Ukraine, and Red Wing crater in North Dakota. All of these craters may have been produced by a meteor train, the result of an object breaking up due to tidal forces or collisions.

Gosses Bluff Crater, Northern Territory, Australia


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What's left of this one is only 5 km across, but that's really only the central uplift that is found in some larger craters; the outer rim has mostly eroded away. This crater dates back about 142 million years. The local Aborigines regard it as sacred and, interestingly, give it an origin story hinting at its true origins: their story is that the child of the morning and evening stars fell out of the sky and hit the Earth in this spot; the shape of the bluff is evocative of its origin.

Karakul Crater, Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan



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This relatively young crater (between 5 and 25 million years old) is in Tajikistan and features a large lake at its center. The overall depression is 52 km across.

Sudbury Basin, Ontario, Canada



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This highly elliptical and also frighteningly large impact crater is difficult to see; it is shallow (the blow was a glancing one) and is heavily eroded and largely covered in vegetation. There is a large lake at one end, and the shape of it is crudely visible as human settlement has been mostly in the valley. The impactor would have been about 10-15 km in size, and struck the Earth about 1.849 billion years ago.

Vredefort Crater, Free State Province, South Africa


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Sudbury is big, but it's not the biggest. At 300 km across, Vredefort is the biggest confirmed impact crater on Earth. It's also the second oldest, at a little over 2 billion years of age. This impactor was probably 5-10 km, but traveling on a more direct course than the one that created Sudbury.

Chicxulub Crater, Yucatan, Mexico

This is not the largest crater on Earth, and you cannot see it at all from the surface. But it's one of the most famous, because this is the one widely suspected to have done in the dinosaurs. It's 180 km across, and the impactor is believed to have been at least 10 km across, striking Earth with a force of roughly 96 teratons of TNT. Geologic evidence indicates that the region was completely underwater at the time, and it would have produced a phenomenal tsunami.

[Gravity map created from public data by Milan Studio and released through Wikimedia Commons.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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