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Wikimedia Commons

17 Canadian World Heritage Sites

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Wikimedia Commons

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizes World Heritage Sites that are of great cultural or natural value. The designations are meant to help drum up an international commitment to preserve the sites. There are currently 981 sites on the list, and 17 of them are in Canada, including two that straddle the border with the United States.

1. L'Anse aux Meadows

This 11th century Viking settlement is the earliest evidence of Europeans living in the Americas. It was inhabited until about 1500. It's on the island of Newfoundland, at the end of the Great Northern Peninsula.

2. Nahanni National Park

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This park spans about 1800 square miles' worth of wilderness in the Northwest Territories. In addition to the super gorgeous Nahanni River, the park contains waterfalls, limestone caves, and forests.

3. Dinosaur Provincial Park

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Located in the province of Alberta, Dinosaur Provincial Park is now stark rocky badlands. But back in the Cretaceous period, the area was subtropical and home to around 35 species of dinosaur. Excavation began in the late 19th century, and since then paleontologists have pulled 300-plus dinosaur skeletons from the park.

4. Kluane/Wrangell-St Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek

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This group of parks straddles the border between the Yukon and Alaska and represents the largest non-polar icefield in the world. 

5. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

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With easily the best name on the list, this site in Alberta has an amazing number of bison bones below a rocky ridge where wily aboriginal hunters used to chase bison off a precipice for an easy kill.

6. Sgang Gwaay

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This 19th century village, also known as Ninstints, is on an island off the coast of British Columbia north of Vancouver Island. The carved wooden poles on the island were made by the Haida people to remember the dead. The village also includes ruins of cedar long houses.

7. Wood Buffalo National Park

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The grasslands and sedge meadows in this park are home to wood bison and whooping cranes. The park is in the north-central region of Canada.

8. Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks

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This cluster of seven parks includes the national parks of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho, along with the provincial parks of Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber. The alpine region has dramatic landscape—mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, canyons, and boreal forest. The Burgess Shale marine fossil site is also here.

9. Historic District of Old Quebec

Courtesy of World Heritage

Quebec City dates to the early 17th century, and still retains parts of its old defensive structures, including ramparts, gates, and garrisons. There are also a number of well-preserved 17th and 18th century houses.

10. Gros Morne National Park

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Newfoundland is a geologist's paradise—especially this park on the west coast, which is apparently a good place to observe the effects of continental drift. The area is noted for coastal lowlands, alpine plateaus, and fjords. Fjords!

11. Old Town Lunenburg

Courtesy of Open Travel

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia is a well-preserved British colonial town dating to 1753. Many of the buildings in this fishing town are original brightly-painted wooden structures more than 200 years old.

12. Waterton Glacier International Peace Park

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This park straddling the border between the United States and Canada, and is comprised of the Canadian Waterton Lakes National Park and the American Glacier National Park. The biodiverse region has a number of endangered species, including great horned owls, wolverines, and red deer.

13. Miguasha National Park

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This park in Quebec is a significant site for fish fossils from the Devonian period, dating from 370 million years ago. The park is especially noted for the lobe-finned fish that are considered to be ancestors of the first terrestrial vertebrates.

14. Rideau Canal

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This canal connects the city of Ottawa with Lake Ontario, and was of great strategic importance in the early 19th century when the British and the United States were duking it out for control of Canada.

15. Joggins Fossil Cliffs

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This site in Nova Scotia is famous for its fossils from the Carboniferous period, also known as the "coal age," which spanned from about 359 million to 299 million years ago. There are a lot of fossilized critters in this site, and some fossilized trees are still upright, embedded in the cliffs.

16. Landscape of Grand Pré

Wikimedia Commons

This marshy area of Nova Scotia contains archaeological evidence of 18th-century agricultural methods, including the aboiteau farming system that allowed the Acadian settlers in the area to farm in spite of the boggy conditions.

17. Red Bay Basque Whaling Station

Courtesy of UNESCO

This seasonal European whaling settlement was founded in 1530 by Basque mariners in current-day Labrador. Here, whales were butchered and the fat was rendered into lamp oil. Archaeologists have found equipment and living quarters used by the whalers. Off shore there are sunken vessels and deposits of whale bones.

Sources: UNESCO World Heritage CentreParks Canada

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]