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6 Other Major Discoveries by the U.S. Geological Survey

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Yesterday, the U.S. Geological Survey registered a 4.9 tremor in North Korea that originated roughly one kilometer underground, suggesting the test of a nuclear bomb. Detecting nuclear tests is one of a wide range of missions for the USGS. The Survey was founded in 1879 in part to take full measure of the Louisiana Purchase and lands conquered during the Mexican-American war. Today it charts and measures not only the lands and resources of the United States, but also the Moon and Mars and beyond. Here are a few things discovered by the U.S. Geological Survey.

1. The Moon’s Face

In 1892, Grove Karl Gilbert, Chief Geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, tested samples at what is now Barringer Crater in Arizona, and reported that the crater was the result of volcanic activity. (His report is famous for its meticulous scientific methodology—Gilbert himself believed the crater had celestial origins, but deferred to the science.) The findings were wrong, but they got him thinking about the craters on the Moon. He believed that they were caused by impacts by meteoroids. From the naval observatory in Washington, he studied the surface of the Moon for eighteen nights over the course of three months. (Senator Edward Wolcott of Colorado didn’t care for such tomfoolery, complaining during a Congressional session, “So useless has the Survey become that one of its most distinguished members has no better way to employ his time than to sit up all night gaping at the Moon.”) In a paper titled The Moon’s Face, Gilbert presented the first scientific arguments for impact origins of craters on Moon. (Previously, volcanoes were widely believed to be responsible for the Moon’s features, and guesses that impacts might be responsible for the craters had no scientific backing.) His research was fifty years ahead of its time, and a milestone in lunar geoscience.

2. One trillion dollars in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has seen decades of war, tyrannical rulers, Mad Max frontiers, and a grim future. There is hope, though. In 2006, a U.S. Geological Survey study found evidence of $1,000,000,000,000 in lithium, gold, niobium, and other valuable metals. (The Pentagon would call Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium.”) The discovery was made after a USGS team arrived to help with the reconstruction effort. They came across old charts from the Afghan Geological Service created by Soviet miners during the occupation. The USGS proceeded to conduct aerial surveys with equipment designed to measure gravity and magnetic fluctuations. They surveyed seventy-percent of the country and were astonished with their findings. In 2007, they returned, this time with scanning devices capable of rendering three-dimensional portraits of the country’s mineral deposits. It is the most comprehensive geologic study of Afghanistan ever recorded, and is a measure of hope in an often-hopeless land.

3. An explanation for life on inhospitable worlds

Most life on Earth requires oxygen to breathe and carbon to eat. The best guess, then, has been that life on other planets would require the same setup. In 2002, Nature published the findings of Frank Chapelle of the U.S. Geological Survey. He discovered a community of microscopic organisms called Archaea located beneath a hot spring in Idaho. Unlike your average dog or monkey, Archaea survive on hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The microbes had long been found in sparse numbers, but Chapelle’s massive, exclusive community of Archaea in such inhospitable conditions give scientists reason to believe that such organisms might exist on Mars or Europa.

4. Rising sea levels on the east coast

When we think of melting ice caps, we tend to think of water everywhere rising at once and at the same rate. That's not exactly what happens. Because of currents, regional oceanographic temperatures, and land movements, water rises in some places faster than others. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each year since 1990, the global sea level has risen 0.6 to 1.0 millimeter globally. On the east coast of the United States, however, the rise has been 2.0 to 3.7 millimeters annually. The upshot is that if something doesn’t change, by 2100, the sea level on the coast will rise 8 to 11.4 inches above the already significant global increase of two to three feet. This will make flooding, already a serious concern for New York and Boston, significantly worse.

5. A landing spot for Curiosity

Taking up where Grove Carl Gilbert left off, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Research Program maps celestial objects and studies their features. The program also develops sensors and scanning techniques to beam images back to Earth for processing. The USGS mapped and selected the landing site on Mars for the Curiosity rover, and USGS scientists analyze collected data and help plan each day’s mission.

6. Earthquakes, everywhere, all the time

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in the past week there were 375 detected earthquakes. It is estimated that each year there are several million earthquakes, though not all are felt, and many occur in remote areas. Although it seems like the number of earthquakes is on the rise, the USGS reports that the number of earthquakes magnitude 7.0 and up remains constant. The number just seems worse because geologists have become much more skilled at detecting them.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]