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5 Abandoned Stations of the London Underground

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London’s Underground subway network is celebrating its 150th year of operation this year, but as with any old institution there are a few skeletons in its closet. Despite the Underground map drawn up by electrical draughtsman Harry Beck being a (relatively) cogent series of equally-spaced stations, the reality of the rail system is somewhat more chaotic.

Beck’s 1933 map, a version of which is still used today, is highly stylised, taking elements of the electrical circuit drawings that he was confronted with in his day-to-day work and presenting it in a tidy, easily understandable package. But the development of the Underground network was not so neat, with different companies operating competing lines in a land grabbing free-for-all for many of the network’s first decades. They criss-crossed each other deep under the streets of London, with some areas overserved by stations while other areas of the UK capital went begging for a train line.

All this chaos—and the Underground’s sheer age—has led to a series of stations being abandoned to history. Some were abandoned before they opened, and remain ghosts on the line, overlooked and inaccessible to all but the most committed urban explorer.

1. Down Street – the wartime bunker

The two-platform Down Street station was part of the Piccadilly Line almost from that route’s inception in 1907. The company that initially commissioned the station had neglected to consider that the residents of the surrounding area, London’s posh Mayfair district, were a little too rich to slum it on the downmarket Underground. (People have become less snooty since then.) According to J. E. Connor's book, London's Disused Underground Stations, Down Street struggled on for a quarter century before it was closed in 1932, though it was not demolished. That came in handy seven years later when war broke out. Waiting for his Cabinet War Rooms to be built in Westminster, Prime Minister Winston Churchill used the reinforced safety of Down Street station as an underground refuge from World War II. 

2. British Museum – too much competition

A perfect example of the problem of a plurality of service providers on the Underground is British Museum station, now in its 80th year of disuse. The station was opened by Central London Railway in 1900. Six years later, a competing provider opened Holborn station less than 100 yards away. The young whippersnapper proved more popular than the older station, and with the ax looming for 20 years or more, once Holborn station was given a sprucing up in the early 1930s (including modern escalators to ground level instead of clunking elevators), British Museum shut up shop.

3. North End/Bull & Bush – the one that never opened

In 1903, the then-operators of what is now the Northern Underground line applied to open a station variously called North End and Bull & Bush. It was to be an engineering marvel, the deepest station below the surface on the Underground network. Tunnels were dug and the station was whittled out of the subsurface rock, ready for tiling and the final touches that make an Underground station useable. Yet it was never completed, and until the 1950s there was no way to access it from the surface. Potential passenger numbers were judged too low to risk the investment of finishing up the station, and so it never opened to the public.

4. Aldwych/Strand – the cultural hub

In 1994, Aldwych station, originally opened as Strand, shut forever. The station had been operating at high-traffic times only for three decades, but it was still a sad sight for the 450 people who used the station daily. It was also a sad occasion for culture vultures, who had Aldwych/Strand to thank for the survival of many pieces of precious art. London’s art galleries and museums used the station’s tunnels as a safe haven for priceless artifacts during both World Wars. Its cultural heritage lives on, though: Now disused but modern enough to pass for a present-day station, it has become a set for movies and TV shows.

5. York Road – the one that could come back

York Road was never the busiest Underground station. Being just a stone’s throw away from Kings Cross, the main terminus for the national rail network as well as the Underground, was always going to stunt its growth. It lasted 25 years from its opening in 1906 (albeit without Sunday service for more than half its existence), but has been closed for the best part of 80 years. It keeps threatening to come back to life, however. Transport for London (TfL), the company that runs the Underground, studied in 2005 whether York Road could reopen to alleviate strain on the system. It was too expensive then—but hope remains that York Road’s overhead lines could power up once more.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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