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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
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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