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Flickr user Sherry Ezuthachan

The World's Most Amazing Staircases

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Flickr user Sherry Ezuthachan

They say life isn't about the destination, but the journey—and that also seems to be true about these amazing staircases. Sure, your knees will probably want to stop bending and your feet will feel like they're going to fall off by the time you finish walking up most of these massive stair-filled walkways.

Image credit: Flickr user arbolande

Image credit: The Zoom

But when it means scaling a cliff without climbing gear or getting to see all of O'ahu while strolling across the top of a massive mountain range, you have to admit that the physical pain is worth the elevating experience you may never encounter again.

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A few years ago, Miss Cellania rounded up the most amazing indoor staircases. Like these!

Hanging Spirals

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This design makes sweeping under the stairs easy! A hanging double spiral staircase is part of the Didden Village project in Rotterdam. There are two such staircases; the other is a single spiral.

Bookshelf Stairs

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Levitate Architects of London designed this bookshelf staircase to combine storage space with access to a loft bedroom. The skylight above provides enough daylight to read a book while you sit on the stairs!

Staircase Drawers

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Another way to use stairs for extra storage is to put drawers in the risers. That's a lot of drawers. When this design went around the internet, everyone loved it, but all I could think of was how my kids tend to leave drawers open, and how easy it would be to trip over one that was left even the slightest bit ajar.

Alternating Stairs

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Gabriella Gustafson and Mattias Ståhlbom of TAF designed this unusual staircase for a private residence in Stockholm, Sweden. The alternating stair design takes up much less room than conventional stairs, but you cannot rush up or down without thinking about where you put your feet!

Step Up, Slide Down

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Entrepreneur Scott Jones built a spiral staircase combined with a slide for his home. The mahogany slide took 15 months to build, and the spiral staircase was added afterward.

The Stairway as Art

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Artist Olafur Eliasson created this steel sculpture called Umschreibung (Rewriting) in 2004 for the KPMG building in Munich.

Stairs to Nowhere

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The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, was built by Sarah L. Winchester, widow of the famous gun maker. The 160-room house was under constant construction for 38 years, until Winchester's death in 1922. She believed that the house was haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles, and only constant building would keep them from taking her life. One of the many strange features of the house is this staircase that leads straight to the ceiling!

The Miraculous Staircase

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The helix staircase at Sisters of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has legendary roots. The story goes that the chapel was built without access to the choir loft. There was no room for a normal staircase, so the sisters prayed to St. Joseph (the carpenter) for a solution. A mysterious man arrived, looking for work, and built the spiral staircase without a center support pole. He then left without being paid. The nuns believed the stranger to be St. Joseph himself. Later evidence points to the staircase as the work of French woodworker Francois-Jean Rochas. Some say the staircase is a miracle since it has no visible means of support, while others say the support is there, it's just hidden from view.

Many more awesome staircases here.

Primary image courtesy of Flickr user Sherry Ezuthachan.

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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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May 23, 2017
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