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7 Reasons to Never Ever Ever Vacation on a Cruise Ship

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By Lauren Hansen

Cruises are often advertised as luxurious escapes from the grinding tedium of our everyday lives. These moving, all-in-one vacations boast entertainment, dining, adventure, relaxation, and a world of postcard-worthy sights. And of course, most cruises are terrific. But when the rare disastrous event strikes, those giant vessels of portable fun go from Jekyll to Hyde just like that, and can even become prisons of panic. Passengers can't easily leave their confined spaces, limited supplies dwindle far too quickly, and help isn't exactly forthcoming on the open sea. We may be more likely to die in a car crash than go down like Jack and Rose, but with the harrowing (if not utterly disgusting) stories emerging from Carnival's latest disaster, let's take a moment to review all the bad things that can happen while vacationing on a big boat.

1. Adrift and powerless

The Carnival cruise ship Triumph was hardly triumphant as it labored into an Alabama port on Feb. 14. After spending five fetid days adrift in the Gulf of Mexico, the 4,200 passengers and crew rushed down the planks, some even sinking to their knees to kiss the dry land. A fire in the engine room had knocked out the ship's propulsion, power, sewage, and heating and air-conditioning systems. So instead of lounging poolside, stocking up at the Asian-themed buffet station, or indulging in a relaxing massage, passengers spent four nights sleeping on sewage-soaked carpets, eating ketchup on buns, and pooping into plastic bags. Just making some memories, really.

2. Pirates (!)

In April 2009, The Melody set off from Durban, South Africa, with about 1,000 passengers and 500 crew on a 22-day luxury cruise that would end in Genoa, Italy. Early in the trip, while the ship passed through waters north of Seychelles, pirates surrounded the boat and opened fire. The cruise ship's security detail returned fire, which was enough to keep the intruders at bay. The Melody's distress call alerted nearby Coast Guards which, with the help of the Spanish navy, were able to apprehend the nine attempted hijackers and escort the ship to safety.

3. Run aground and capsized

The Costa Concordia suffered one of the biggest disasters in recent cruise-liner history when it ran aground in January 2012 off the coast of Tuscany. The ship eventually sank, and dozens of the 4,229 passengers and crew died. The ship was only three hours into its voyage through the Mediterranean when the ship first hit rocks. Survivors reported hearing a loud bang before the liner was plunged into darkness and shuddered to a halt. It wasn't until the enormous vessel began to list dramatically that its passengers erupted into complete panic, with people stealing life jackets from one another and opting to jump into the sea instead of waiting for lifeboats. One passenger compared the terrifying ordeal to Titanic.

4. A flu outbreak

Over the Christmas holiday, hundreds of vacationers embarked upon luxury cruises only to find themselves trapped with an unsavory bunkmate — a viral stomach bug. On the Emerald Princess cruise ship, for example, 5 percent of the passengers came down with some sort of gastrointestinal flu. The sick had to be quarantined in their rooms with the threat of "unnamed consequences" if they dared to leave. Those who managed to escape the virus' nauseating effects were asked to stay away from the buffet and eat only at the full-service restaurants. The sick did enjoy the comforts of room service, however. On the prestigious Queen Mary 2, 194 passengers and 11 crew members also came down with the suspected Norovirus bug, which is highly contagious and typically transmitted from person to person.

5. Going missing

Occasionally, passengers just vanish. In April 2011, John Halford was enjoying his last night of a week-long Egyptian cruise. His bag was packed, he had texted his wife, who was at home in Britain, to say he'd see her the next day at the airport, and went off to dinner. Passengers reportedly saw him have a cocktail later in the evening. And then he was gone. Worryingly, Halford's story is far from unique. That year there were at least 13 people who went missing and, as the Cruise Victims Association reports, some 165 people have disappeared while at sea since 1995. While some suspect accidents, suicides, and even sinister crime waves, in the end, most cases go unsolved, the families left in limbo.

6. Crime

Cruise ships are like floating foreign islands where laws shift like the tides. The way criminal matters are dealt with can depend on the ship's location in the ocean, its home port, or the nationality of its passengers. And prosecuting these crimes can be difficult. Crime scenes are often contaminated, since no police are onboard the ships. And if the ship is in foreign waters, it is often up to the captain to decide whether to incarcerate someone suspected of committing a crime. If a U.S. citizen is involved, the FBI will investigate, but some victims of crimes say that the action is often too late. In the end, some 16 percent of all murders and 7 percent of sexual assaults aboard cruise ships lead to convictions or plea bargains, according to FBI statistics. Lawyers for cruise liners maintain that crime statistics remain low, and are roughly equivalent to the chances a person has of being struck by lightning.

7. Collisions

In March 2012, a luxury cruise ship collided in deep fog with a container ship about five miles from the coast of Vietnam. Passenger Andrew Lock said he and his wife suddenly heard the ship's foghorn alarm. Startled, they looked out their window and saw a container ship appear out of nowhere directly in front of them. They braced themselves for the impact. "It was a horrifying moment," he said. Within five seconds of the ship appearing, their cruise liner collided into its side. The Silversea Cruises maintains the damage was limited, but passengers say it felt like a "major collision" and watched as the container ship rolled over at a 90-degree angle. Lock said it looked like the cruise liner had "crushed" the other ship.

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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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