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Rama-O-Rama: A Guide to 5 Visual Extravaganzas!

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Wikimedia Commons

Before motion pictures, there were many ways for people to experience something they had never seen before. These visual extravaganzas, created by innovative and imaginative showmen, were often named using the Greek suffix -rama, meaning "a sight" or “view,” to help sell tickets to the next big thing.

1. Panorama

“Panorama,” or “all sight,” was first used by Robert Barker in 1792 to describe his almost 2700-square-foot, 360-degree painting of Edinburgh, Scotland. His panoramic technique, patented in 1787 as La Nature a Coup d' Oeil ("Nature at a glance"), required painting with a particular type of perspective that allowed the curvature of the picture to be taken into account so the image still looked correct when seen head-on. Barker’s panoramas were housed inside a cylindrical exhibit hall also called The Panorama.  But as the concept caught on and panoramas popped up all over the world, the circular buildings soon became known as cycloramas, and were as widespread as our modern day movie theaters.

To view a panorama, audiences stood on a central platform under a skylight to ensure even lighting across the painting. To create a feeling of immersion, props such as tree branches hanging from the ceiling or rocks and shrubs on the floor, not only hid the edges of the painting, but also provided visual depth. It was this attempt to simulate reality that sparked criticisms as panoramas grew in popularity. Many, including poet William Wordsworth, witnessed audience members who became confused as to whether they were in the cyclorama or the actual place depicted in the painting. Some critics even compared the manipulation of panoramic paintings as destructive as wartime propaganda. 

Although most of the thousands of panoramas that once graced cycloramas are gone today, a few still exist for public view. The most famous example in America is the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 27-foot high, 359-foot-long painting depicting Pickett's Charge.

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2. Diorama

Although we normally think of a diorama as a display in a museum or a shoebox science project, the original dioramas were nothing of the sort. In 1822, Charles Marie Bouton and Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, who would later help revolutionize photography with the daguerreotype, built the Diorama Theatre in Paris to display paintings that, thanks to some clever light effects, seemed to come alive. 

After paying for a ticket, audiences as large as 350 stood on a circular stage and looked down a long tunnel. At the end was a translucent, linen canvas 70 feet wide by 45 feet high with pictures painted on both sides. A well-rehearsed crew of workmen would strategically redirect outside sunlight at the front, back, and top of the canvas using screens, shutters, and colored gels, revealing the painting on either side of the canvas to create the illusion of movement or the passage of time. Sound effects were added to help complete the theatrical experience. After about 10 or 15 minutes, the theatre's floor would revolve on a giant turntable, redirecting the audience's view to a second tunnel showing a different diorama. In the Diorama, it was customary for one performance to be an interior scene, while the other would be an exterior.  To help illustrate the concept, check out this amazing video:

Dioramas became very popular, with hundreds produced that traveled all over Europe. But only one original Daguerre diorama still exists today, on display at the church in Bry-sur-Marne, France. When the diorama was first installed, it consisted of three painted panels that made this small, simple church appear to contain large, ornate statues, as well as an extensive Gothic nave.  When lit from the front and top by sunlight that shone through the building’s glass ceiling, the nave appeared to go on to a distant horizon. But as the light shifted, the church slowly descended into night, and the nave grew darker. Candles on the altar seemed to flicker in the drafty halls of this simulated cathedral. Sadly, the church has undergone architectural changes over the years, so the necessary glass panels and shades are no longer intact to make the diorama function as Daguerre intended.

3. Myriorama

If panoramic paintings were the movie theaters of their day, then myriorama cards were the televisions. Featuring slices of idyllic painted landscapes filled with people, buildings, flora, and fauna, a set of myriorama cards could be arranged in any order to create a seamless panorama on the parlor room table.

Although invented by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Brés in 1802, it was Englishman John Clark who really developed the idea and made it a popular British pastime in the 1820s. His first myriorama, or “many thousand views,” consisted of 16 cards, which, according to the advertisement, offered 20,922,789,888,000 variations of the landscape for only 15 shillings. His second series was 24 cards, making for an astounding 620,448,401,733,239,439,360,000 combinations.

4. The Moving Panorama

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, panoramas were the tops in entertainment. One innovation over the years was the moving panorama, a painting on a long roll of canvas that scrolled past an audience to simulate a journey. 

One type of moving panorama was the pleorama, which took visitors on a virtual boat ride. Perhaps the most immersive of these was the Mareorama, featured at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Up to 700 guests at a time were taken aboard a replica steamship 100 feet long and about 30 feet wide, complete with smoking funnels and howling steam whistles, and manned by a captain and small crew. The ship was flanked on both sides by moving panorama paintings about 42 feet high and nearly 2500 feet long, for a total of about 210,000 square feet of canvas. The panoramas featured scenes from a sea voyage from Marseille to Constantinople, including many of the more exotic cities along the way. Thanks to special effects, day turned into night and back again, and the passengers even faced a high seas storm. To help complete the illusion, the ship was mounted on a 16-foot square iron frame that could be pitched and rolled by hydraulic cylinders, giving the sensation of rolling with the waves of the Mediterranean Sea.

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Paris Exposition visitors could also “travel” on a padorama, a land-based transportation moving panorama, modeled after the then under-construction Trans-Siberian Railway. Passengers sat in one of three 70-foot railway cars that featured all the luxuries one could expect from first class accommodations during the golden age of the iron horse. Outside the windows, a multi-layered illusion of the landscape passed by. Closest were rocks and sand on a horizontal belt running at about 1000 feet per minute. Behind these props was a low canvas painted with shrubs that traveled at about 400 feet per minute. Just above this canvas was another, larger canvas with more distant scenery that ran at about 130 feet per minute. Finally, the largest canvas, at 25 feet tall and 350 feet long, displayed most of the mountains, forests, clouds, and famous landmarks like the Great Wall of China and Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral. Because these images were off in the distance, this canvas passed by at a mere 16 feet per minute so everyone could get a good look. Although the actual journey by rail would have taken about 14 days to complete, audiences at the Exposition could complete their simulated trip in about an hour. The exhibit proved so popular that it was replayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. 

5. Cinéorama

Like other ramas at the 1900 Paris Exposition, the Cinéorama by Raoul Grimoin-Sanson was a panoramic simulation ride, but with a turn-of-the-century high-tech twist. The ride consisted of a circular platform in the center of a cylindrical building large enough to hold about 200 paying customers. The platform was built to mimic a hot air balloon basket, complete with rigging ropes, sandbags, and a large balloon overhead that reached the ceiling. On the walls were ten 30-foot by 30-foot screens featuring a panoramic scene of the Tuileries Gardens in Paris created by ten synchronized 70mm movie projectors located below the viewing platform. The film depicted the balloon lifting 400 meters above the grounds, where it would hover for a few minutes to give the audience a good view, and then run backwards to simulate the balloon returning to the ground. The film was shot using a custom-built platform with ten cameras recording simultaneously, not unlike the multi-lens camera used for Google Streetview Maps today.

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While the Paris Exposition lasted eight months, the Cinéorama only lasted three days—and some accounts say it never even had a debut performance. It was shut down because Paris police were concerned the intense heat generated by the projectors under the viewing platform posed a fire hazard. After the ride’s failure to launch, the company which Grimoin-Sanson created to manufacture and market the Cinéorama was bankrupt less than a year later. Gone, but not forgotten, Disney started using the same Cinéorama concept, now known as Circle-Vision 360, for many areas at their theme parks, including Epcot's O Canada! and America the Beautiful exhibits.   

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]