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11 Wonderful Libraries in Africa

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We’ve brought you beautiful European, South American, North American and Asian libraries, so now it’s time for some of the most amazing libraries in Africa.

1. Library of Alexandria

The most famous library in Africa is the Library of Alexandria — the modern tribute to the famed library of antiquity.

Located on the shore in Alexandria near where the ancient library stood, the Library offers enough room for over eight million books. The cost of construction of the marvel has left the library with limited funds to purchase books, though. As of right now, the collection is at about one million, half of which were donated from the National Library of France. The library holds the largest collection of French-language books in Africa and the sixth largest in the world. The rest are mostly in Arabic and English.

The complex also houses a conference center, four museums, nineteen art galleries, a planetarium, manuscript restoration laboratory, multimedia library, library for maps, special library for the visually impaired and the world's only copy and external backup of the Internet Archive.

Images Courtesy of Noel Hildago's Flickr stream and Wikipedia user CarstenW.

2. Saint Catherine's Monastery Library, Egypt

Saint Catherine’s Monastery was established in 381 and is widely considered the oldest monastery in the world. The library was built sometime in the sixth century, which makes it the oldest continuously running library on Earth. As you would guess, the library has an incredible collection, boasting over 3,500 codices in a variety of languages — second only to the Vatican's.

One of the monastery’s most important holdings is the Achtiname, which contains a promise from Muhammad himself offering his protection to the monastery. The library also once housed the oldest almost completely preserved Bible, but it has since been transported to Russia and then sold to the British Library.

Images courtesy of Gillian C. Boal of the University of California Berkley Library and Beautiful Libraries.

3. Misr University for Science and Technology Library, Egypt

This building's pyramid-shaped skylights bring a touch of ancient Egypt to technology and science students studying here, but the shapes also allow ample natural light without increasing the temperature too much.

The library works to do the same with their collection as they have with their architecture, combining texts on ancient Egypt with science, cultural and recreational readings. The library also houses a museum displaying replicas of the country’s most famous monuments.

Images courtesy of ArchNet.

4. October 6 University Library, Egypt

Wonder why the school is named October 6 University? Because it’s in 6th of October City, of course. The library was built specifically for the college, but it is open to the public and is actually located  about 550 yards off-campus.

5. National Library of South Africa

The country’s oldest library dates back to 1818. Throughout the years, the library received many donations of rare books and manuscripts, and in 1873 the library became a legal deposit library for the Cape Colony, receiving copies of all books published therein. In 1916, the library expanded its legal deposit requirement to cover the whole country. As a result, the library has one of the most amazing and extensive collections in the entire continent. In 1999, the library united with the State Library of Pretoria to form the two branches of the National Library of South Africa.

Image courtesy of Warren Tyrer's Flickr stream.

6. Port Elizabeth Main Library, South Africa

In 1845 the Port Elizabeth News Society started a public subscription library. At first, the group met in a small room, but they earned so much money that they were soon able to buy the entire building. Then the government rented it to use as a court house for almost half a century before the building was torn down and replaced with the current structure, which open in 1902. In 1983 the building was declared a historic monument.

Image courtesy of Mike Barwood's Flickr stream.

7. CL Marais Library, South Africa

The CL Marais Library was built in 1901, before the official establishment of the current Stellenbosch University in 1918. The library had to expand quickly to keep up with the college, and by 1926 it already had to be renovated to add additional space. In 1938, a new library was erected and, by 1983, even that library grew too small and yet another building had to be constructed to contain the school’s ever-growing collection.

Image courtesy of Clive Reid's Flickr stream.

8. Hogsback Library, South Africa

This library is located in a small mountain village and is said to be the smallest library in the world. If you happen to be in the area, don’t plan on visiting the library unless you’re incredibly punctual — it's only open to the public from 3 to 4pm on Wednesday and 9:30 to 10:30am on Saturday.

Image courtesy of Valerie Hinojosa's Flickr stream.

9. Kenyatta University Library, Kenya

This strikingly modern building was completed and opened late last year. It is six stories high and each level serves its own specific function: all acquisition and binding is done in the basement, the first floor offers a student lounge and check-out desk, the second floor houses the social science books, the third is home to the humanities section, the fourth holds the science and technology titles, the fifth is where you can find the special collections and the top level serves as a reading area for students and faculty.

Image courtesy of ODDMAC.

10. Balme Library, Ghana

The main library of the University of Ghana houses six departments and a special section for the disabled. The library’s current holdings number over 100,000 books, including a collection of rare books and prints. It is regarded as the best library in West Africa.

Image courtesy of Swegg's Flickr stream.

11. Keren Public Library, State of Eritrea

Keren, and Eritrea in general, has made quite an effort to provide their war-torn lands with more educational services, particularly modernized libraries. This lovely building is just one of the many libraries that have benefited thanks to donors from all over the world who work with groups like Book Aid International to donate money, computers and books to those who need them most.

Know of any other great African libraries that should be included on this list? Tell us about them in the comments!

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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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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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