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NRAO

The Town Where Wireless Signals Are Illegal

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NRAO

Shhh! The scientists are listening to space!

Green Bank, West Virginia, is a tech-savvy teenager’s nightmare. In this tiny town in Pocahontas County—population 143, as of the last census—wireless signals are illegal. No cell phones. No WiFi. No Bluetooth. No electronic transmitters at all. Recently, a store even had to remove their automatic doors because they caused too much interference.

The remote town is smack in the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile stretch of land designated by the FCC to protect two government radio telescopes from man-made interference. The rules, though, are most strict in Green Bank’s neck of the woods. So strict, actually, that someone roves the streets listening for verboten wireless signals.

It’s necessary, though. The town is home to the Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world—and arguably our most powerful link to the cosmos. Scientists there listen to radio energy that has journeyed light years, unlocking secrets about how the stars and galaxies formed. A rogue radio signal could prevent potential discoveries, discoveries that could answer big questions about how the universe ticks.

Green Bank, West Virginia: A Visitors Guide

In Green Bank, finding cell phone service is the only thing harder than finding another human. A flip of the radio dial won’t reward you, either—it’s all a steady whoosh of white noise. If you’re lucky, though, you may catch a faint flicker of the only AM broadcasting from the area, hosted by the Allegheny Mountain Radio Network.

First responders are the only residents allowed to use communication radios, although they’re limited to short-distance CB radios. If you get lost, one pay phone is there to rescue you—a pay phone, mind you, that people actually use. And you can search the web there, too, but you’ll have to get used to the grating ping of a dial-up modem again. (Although some homes have ethernet, it’s generally not worth it for companies to bring in anything faster.)

Surprisingly, a ban on all things wireless hasn’t driven residents away; it’s actually drawn people all across the United States to settle down. Sufferers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity—a disease supposedly caused by wireless signals, but dismissed by the scientific community—have moved into the electronic dead space.

If you're in Green Bank and desperately need to update social media, you’re in luck: Recently, engineers at AT&T brought cellular connectivity to the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort, which lies in the center of the quiet zone. Doing this was no easy task, because they needed to get the radio wave interference down to extremely low levels. In a post on AT&T’s website, the director of the site, Dr. Karen O’Neil, explained the problems involved. To get approval, AT&T installed 180 antennas around the resort and 3 miles of fiberoptic cable so that the signals don’t need to travel very far. Which is good, because they also had to lower the power—according to O’Neil, your phone ordinarily emits 500 milliwatts when you’re using it. But if you’re skiing the slopes, that goes down automatically to less than a milliwatt.

A version of this story appeared in 2013; it has been updated to add new information.

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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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