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5 Unseen Parts of NYC's Subway System

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First opened on October 27, 1904, the New York City subway system now has more than 400 stations over the course of 842 miles of track. As one of the world’s oldest underground systems, things have changed a lot since its grand opening more than a century ago. Here are just a few of the many stations that have come and gone.

1. City Hall Station

Courtesy of The Fine Art Photo

The subway system’s first station, the City Hall stop, is a “ghost station” now, according to Taras Grescoe in his book Straphanger. The forgotten original terminal, which opened on the evening of October 27, along with 27 other stations along the west side, sits abandoned beneath City Hall. Although one train—the downtown local 6—still passes through the terminal, it’s just a quick blur of what once was. In photography from The Fine Art Photo, the ghost station—with its glass skylights and emerald tiles—can still be seen in all its beauty.

So why did New York City desert this station? By mid-century, longer trains were needed to accommodate an increasing ridership—but the City Hall platform’s unique curve wouldn’t allow for this. The prospect of a difficult revamp, on top of a low daily ridership for this particular station, led to the city retiring the City Hall stop at the end of 1945.

2. 18th Street Station

Courtesy of The Tech

Also unveiled with the City Hall stop was the 18th Street station, located at Park Avenue South, which was originally intended to accomodate five subway cars. As ridership picked up, the station was hastily extended in 1910. That lasted for a while, but another big change for the subway system was coming soon: the 14th Street express station. Like most other older stations at the time in 1948, passenger traffic dropped as soon as the express station was launched. Soon, it was decided that it wasn't feasible to keep the 18th Street station operational. Today, the station is basically the same as when it closed—aside from a touch of graffiti on the station's walls, which covers up the iconic oval-shaped "18" plaque.

3. FDR's Station reports that there's one station that was meant for one person only: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On a tour of the Grand Central Terminal, MTA worker Dan Brucker gave a tour of the station hidden away far below ground. Roosevelt's custom train was designed so he could be driven in a limousine from inside the train, down a ramp and into an elevator next to the platform. From there, he would take the elevator to the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, where he would give a speech. This train car still sits below Grand Central.

4. Sedgwick Avenue Station

Courtesy of Joseph Brennan

Created as an extension and as a way to add a new station on the Bronx side, the Sedgwick Avenue station was opened in July 1918. When it first opened, the station was part of a large “elevated subway” route, providing the main service to the Jerome Avenue line, but it was replaced when subway trains became the main service of transport in the ‘20s. When the city took over the Interborough Rapid Transit routes in 1940, it eliminated several elevated subway routes, ceasing joint operation of elevated subways and subway trains. When the route was shut down, the steel elevated structure was removed. However, the ground level and tunnel platforms still remain today, and are visible with a little exploring: “Go to Ogden Avenue from Jerome Avenue, turn into 161 Street, and walk onto the footbridge over Sedgwick Avenue and the Major Deegan Expressway. The outdoor portion of the platforms is visible in the bushes …,” according to Joseph Brennan, an engineer at Columbia University's IT, who has collected data on abandoned stations.

5. 91st Street Station

Courtesy of David Pirmann

Originally, a station on 91st Street was provided because there was a long 10-block stretch without a station, and developers saw the area becoming widely populated in the future. As part of the first New York subway in 1904, it was much like other local stops: about 200 feet long, just long enough to accommodate five car trains, but platforms were extended in 1910 for longer trains. When it came time for an extension program in the '50s, the Transit Authority decided the 91st Street station wasn't necessary, and it was closed in 1959. Parts of the platform are visible if riding the 1 train between 86th Street and 96th Street.

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.