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10 Real-Life Panic Rooms

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Panic rooms were brought into the public eye by the 2002 film starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart. Sometimes called safe rooms, these fortified bunkers are meant to shelter people during an attack, a burglary, or an extreme weather event like a tornado. Some of them are in plain sight, some are built into a foundation, and some are concealed behind bookshelves, staircases, or fireplaces. Most include communication equipment so you can call the police after you barricade yourself inside.

Panic rooms are far from common. The real estate site Trulia reports that only 0.00016 percent of all their listings include the words "panic room." And panic rooms are not for the hoi polloi—the average price of listings with a panic room is $1,656,565. Since the locations of panic rooms are often kept secret until after a buyer is secured, most of Trulia’s listings that include panic rooms don’t provide a picture.

Here's a sampling of the real-life safe rooms we discovered in private homes and on the market.

1. Hideaways for the Rich

Courtesy of HiddenPassageWay

The fanciest safe room doors we found came from a company called Creative Home Engineering. These wouldn't look out of place on your estate in the Hamptons.

2. Tickets to the Gun Closet

Courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle

Panic rooms got more popular after September 11, 2001, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The one pictured here has a handy gun rack.

3. Off to Narnia

Courtesy of HiddenPassageWay

This armoire with a false back can be installed to conceal the entrance to a panic room. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, anyone?

4. Hurricane Ready

The DuPont company makes a safe room fortified with Kevlar, meant to withstand a category 5 hurricane. They use some kind of crazy space-age epoxy to glue the thing to a cement slab, usually in your garage.

5. Through the Mirror

Courtesy of HiddenPassageWay

Nothing is getting through these doors.

6. Best Fort Ever

Courtesy of Barnorama

This panic room looks like it’s doubling as a playroom.

7. Keeping the Wine Out of Sight

Courtesy of Trulia

The underground safe room in this Colorado house doubles as a wine cellar.

8. Hide the Wine Better

Courtesy of Core77

In fact, we could take this whole underground wine cellar idea one step further. No one can break into a room they cannot find, right? And you'll have some liquid courage to keep you company while the intruders search your house.

9. Fool Them with Books

Courtesy of Trulia

A bookshelf on the landing of this house in Texas swings inward to reveal a panic room.

10. Secret Priest Chambers

Courtesy of Aquiziam

Panic rooms are nothing new. Earlier versions, called priest holes, were once built into the homes of Catholics in England, so visiting priests would have a place to hide during raids by anti-Catholic authorities. This house in Worcestershire has several.

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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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