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7 Stunning Mineral Formations

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The world is made up of wondrous chemicals that sometimes do pretty out-of-the-ordinary things. Here are seven places where minerals, carried by water, by heat, or by the actions of Mother Earth herself, left us with strange and wonderful sights.

1. Pamukkale Terraces, Turkey

Looks ice cold, doesn't it? Actually, the water is quite warm at the Pamukkale terraces in Turkey, but swimming in it is restricted to preserve the environment at this UNESCO World Heritage site. The white formations are deposits of the mineral travertine from hot spring water that built up into a series of dams, making the terraced pools what they are. See more pictures of Pamukkale and of other terraces formed by various mineral flows.

2. Fly Geyser, Nevada

The geothermal geyser called the Fly Geyser is on private land in the Hualapai Valley near Gerlach, Nevada. The colors are due to different mineral deposits as well as algae growing on it. The geyser broke through the surface of the land in the 1960s, in a weak spot where a water well had been drilled decades earlier. It has since built up a mineral cone several meters high with multiple water geysers constantly spewing over 74 acres. The owners of Fly Ranch do not welcome sightseers, and do not want to sell the parcel on which the geyser sits.

3. Dallol, Ethiopia

Dallol is a huge area in Ethiopia that shows what happens when a volcano erupting from below meets water and concentrated minerals at the surface. An explosive eruption left a volcanic crater, mineral springs, geysers, acidic pools, salt pillars, and other strange formations in the middle of the Danokil Desert, 150 feet below sea level. Sulfur, iron oxide, salt, and other minerals give these formations otherworldly colors. Due to harsh conditions (the average temperature of the area is over 90 degrees!), inaccessibility, and political tensions, Dallol has never been designated as a National Park, nor does it have any kind of reserved status. Photograph by Wikipedia user Hervé Sthioul.

4. Kelimutu, Indonesia

Kelimutu Colored Lakes - Komodo, Indonesia

The Kelimutu volcanic peak on Flores Island in Indonesia has three crater lakes which each have water of a different color, thanks to the minerals they contain and the ways those minerals interact with volcanic gasses bubbling up from below. Tiwu Ata Mbupu is blue, Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai is green, and Tiwu Ata Polo is often red (although it looks very dark here). Each lake has a different legend and spiritual meaning. Photograph by Flickr user

5. Meramec Caverns, Missouri

Meramec Caverns

Solutional limestone cave systems feature the mineral deposits that we all learned about in grade school: stalactites and stalagmites. Meramec Caverns near Stanton, Missouri, is a particularly photogenic example of a cave system formed when water leached limestone away from the sandstone surrounding it. The resulting open space, formed over hundreds of millions of years, is partially (and slowly) filling up with limestone deposits forming the stalactites growing down from above and stalagmites building up from below. Photograph by Flickr user Tydence Davis.

6. Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico

In New Mexico, Lechuguilla Cave and Carlsbad Caverns are both a different kind of solutional cave: they were formed by sulfurous acids rising from below. The minerals from the acidic fumes leave amazing and fragile gypsum and sulfur formations such as crystals, chandeliers, soda straws, and cave pearls. Although Carlsbad Caverns is a major tourist draw, the more recently-mapped Lechuguilla Cave is off-limits to visitors in order to preserve the environment. Shown here is a gypsum formation called the Chandelier Ballroom at Lechuguilla Cave. Photograph by wikipedia user Dave Bunnell.

7. Ijen Volcano Complex, Indonesia

Kawah Ijen

Ijen volcano complex in East Java is a group of stratovolcanoes in one huge caldera. The cones of these volcanoes are a result of lava layers that spew and cool over a long series of eruptions. At Ijen, several volcanic craters accompany these cones, with a sulfur and acid content that repels all but the hardiest of humans. However, people take the risk to mine the abundant sulfur from these craters. It's a dangerous but relatively lucrative job. Photograph by Flickr user Jean-Marie Hullot.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of mineral formations, but rather a few examples of how these things come about. Let us know if you have a favorite not included here!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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