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Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

18 Amazing Facts for the London Tube's 150th Birthday

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Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

I spend probably 40 minutes a day crammed cheek to sweaty jowl with other London commuters, some of them drunks, farters, and shovers, in a swiftly moving cylinder hundreds of feet underground. It’s usually hot, and despite the fact that we are Tetrised in there, all of us are trying desperately to pretend that we are completely alone.

And rarely do I give thanks for the experience.

But last week, I did, because it marked the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, that efficient marvel of public transport. On January 9, 1863, the world’s first-ever underground railway train, steam-operated, pulled out of Paddington Station, and rumbled 3.5 miles down the tubular tunnel to Farringdon Station. The line, which was financed by Metropolitan Railway, was an instant success: More than 40,000 people queued up for the novelty of riding a train underground. Within six months, 26,000 people were riding the train each day. The private company had been formed in 1854 with the express purpose of linking the main railway stations of Paddington, Euston, and King’s Cross; the man behind the idea and who pushed approval for it through Parliament, reformer Charles Pearson, sadly died one year before it was completed.

Six years later, the East London Railway, another private company, ran its steam-operated trains under the Thames, through a tunnel that took nearly 20 years to complete and was the first ever tunnel to run under a navigable river, between Rotherhithe and Wapping. Other lines, each operated by a separate private company, began popping up, sometimes overlapping, sometimes linking with one another; this organic growth is the reason why some stations are only blocks apart, yet can take 45 minutes to move between via train.

By 1884, there were more than 800 trains in operation in what was called the Inner Circle, a circular line that enclosed central London and that is now just the Circle Line. And now, with more than five times that number of trains operating and millions of people safely and swiftly reaching their destinations every day, the London Underground is truly a modern miracle of efficient transport.

The Figures

1. The entire London Underground network is 249 miles long, employing 4134 trains and linking 270 stations. Only around 45 percent of those miles are underground.

2. Each Tube train travels an average of 114,500 miles a year, or 4.6 times around the world. The longest distance between stations is the 6.3 kilometers (3.9 miles) between Chesham to Chalfont & Latimer, out in Zone 8 on the Metropolitan Line. The shortest distance is the 300 meters (.19 miles) between Leicester Square and Covent Garden on the Picadilly Line—and since Covent Garden is usually mobbed, you’re better off getting out at Leicester Square and walking.

3. Each year, 1,107,000,000 journeys are made on the London Underground or, according to TimeOut, about 135 trips for every man, woman and child in London. The busiest station in the network is Waterloo, which sees some 82 million passengers a year, with some 57,000 traveling through during the three-hour morning peak each day; the least used is Roding Valley, which is somewhere out in Zone 4 on the Central Line and is probably a lovely place to visit.

4. The average Londoner spends 11.5 days each year on the Underground, 5.2 of those days in the Underground’s underground tunnels. What’s unknown is how many hours of those days are spent stopped underground, waiting for a signal failure to be resolved, another train to move along, or for whatever bit of rubbish that has been thrown on the tracks at the station ahead of you to be cleared.

5. The fastest line is the Metropolitan, which can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, but the average speed of a London Underground train is only around 20.5 miles per hour.

6. The deepest Underground station is Hampstead, on the Northern Line, which is nearly 60 meters (192 feet) below street level. There’s an elevator, of course, but also an emergency spiral stair of more than 320 steps. In a fit of exercise mania, I tried it. It was dizzying.

7. The longest escalator at any Underground station is the 60-meter (197 foot) moving stair at Angel, in Islington, on the Northern line. I once tripped going up this engineering wonder and barked my shins something fierce.

8. The chances of being involved in a fatal accident on the Tube are 1 in 300 million, according to The Guardian. Excluding terrorist attacks, such as the horrifying 7/7 bombings in 2005, and natural deaths, only 265 people have died on the Tube in the last 10 years. That statistic, however, is difficult to reconcile with The Independent’s claim that around 50 people each year commit suicide on the Underground, and the Transport for London figures released in 2011, showing that 80 people threw themselves in front of trains in 2010, a 74 percent increase since 2000.

The Facts (just a few)

1. The Underground’s first real escalator was built in 1911 at Earl’s Court, but four years before that, a spiral escalator was installed at Holloway Road Station. It didn’t last very long—in fact, it only lasted a day of testing and never actually saw public use. Its remains are held at the London Transport Museum’s Depot, which is only open to the public twice a year. And if you ever get a chance to go, don’t hesitate.

2. Most amusing station names: Barking, West Ham, East Ham, and, of course, Cockfosters.

3. An estimated 500,000 mice live in the tunnels, but they’re not the only pests—the mosquitoes that live in the Tube are of a different and somewhat more vicious species than their aboveground cousins. Called Culex pipiens molestus, they’re supposedly known for their voracious appetites (full disclosure: as far as I know, I have never been bitten by a mosquito on the Underground).

4. The London Underground is also supposedly home to a group of subterranean Londoners, who, just like the Mole People of New York’s Subway, took to the tunnels and mutated. The Tube is also reportedly home to a host of ghostly apparitions, including the Faceless Woman of Beacontree Station, the Toothy Man of Channelsea Depot, and the Screaming Spectre of Farringdon Station.

5. Among the strangest things left on the Underground and collected by the Lost Property Office: A jar of bull semen; outboard motor; three dead bats in a container; a vasectomy kit; a harpoon gun, which may have gone with the 14-foot long boat; a stuffed eagle; breast implants; false teeth and a surprising number of prosthetic limbs; a four-foot tall Mickey Mouse; six full-sized mannequins; and an urn containing a dead man’s ashes, which was reunited with his brother five years after it was lost.

6. Another thing lost on the Underground—daytime television’s dignity, with the birth of trash talk-show host Jerry Springer! The indomitable Springer was born at Highgate Station on the Northern Line on February 13, 1944, when his mother sought shelter during a Luftwaffe raid.

7. And speaking of air raids: At the start of the London Blitz, Germany’s nightly bombing raids on the British capital in September 1939, the government banned people from using the Tube stations as air raid shelters, claiming that the stations should be reserved only for transport. People got around the ban by simply buying a ticket and refusing to the leave the platform. A month later, the government realized that the ban was unenforceable at best and cruel at worst, and gave the go-ahead for stations to be used as shelters. By the end of the war, sheltering in the Underground had became so regular that a ticketing scheme was introduced to keep people from panicking at the queues, and more than 22,000 bunk beds were installed in stations across the system to provide places for them to sleep. But the shelters weren’t failsafe: Between September 1940 and May 1941, 198 people were killed in direct hits to Tube stations; one of the worst was when Bank Station, the only station to be fully underground, was hit, resulting in the deaths of 56 people on January 13, 1941.

8. In 1969, Queen Elizabeth II commemorated the opening of the Victoria Line by driving one of the new trains from Green Park to Oxford Circus. It was her second ride ever on a London Underground train, the first being when she was 13 and accompanied by her sister and governess. Presumably her stint as Tube driver was without incident as eight years later, the Queen was again allowed in the cab of a Picadilly Line train when she presided over the opening of the line’s extension.

9. There is a shocking number of disused ghost stations scattered across the lines, which are sometimes used for TV and movie sets. And, because they can, some intrepid souls like to sneak down into them to have a look around and take creepy pictures. That’s not exactly legal or safe, but in 2011, The London Transport Museum, in conjunction with the Underground, took some 2500 lucky people on tours of the abandoned Aldwych Station on the Strand.

10. The London Underground’s iconic map, which bears no relationship to actual topographical or geographical features, was designed in 1931 by HC Beck. Beck, an engineering draughtsman who worked in London Underground’s signals office, was supposedly inspired by electronic circuit boards, and saw ways of tidying up the lines. But the department rejected the initial proposal, claiming it was too radical, and Beck was paid a paltry £10.50 for his work. Two years and some modifications later, however, the Underground adopted the map and has used it ever since.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.