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Library of Congress

11 Historical Photos of the Panama Canal

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Library of Congress

Construction on the Panama Canal had ceased earlier in 1914, but it was on this date that the 50-mile-long canal officially opened to traffic after more than 30 years of planning, blasting, dredging, and building. Here are some vintage photos of the canal during the construction and in action.

1. An excavator at work in Bas Obispo in 1886. The machine could remove, on average, 400 cubic yards of material a day. According to the Panama Canal's website, the material removed to create the canal—approximately 268,000,000 cubic yards of earth and rock in all—was used to turn an island into a peninsula and to create 500 acres along the Pacific Coast from Balboa to Fort Amador. The rest was dumped in the jungle. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

2. Construction work in 1888. The building of the canal was started by the French in 1880, when Count Ferdinand de Lesseps—who also developed the Suez Canal—set off a blast at Culebra. Their effort was plagued by problems, and in 1904, the United States officially took over. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

3. Date unknown: An auxillary crane dumps concrete at the Pedro Miguel locks. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

4. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Canal in 1906, where he spoke with workers at Bas Obispo about the project. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

5. Roosevelt also helped them accomplish the task at hand by operating a steam shovel at the Culebra Cut. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson hit a button in Washington that was transmitted by telegraph to blow up a dike at Gamboa, causing the waters of Gatun Lake to flood the cut. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

6. A suction dredge at the Calebra Cut, snapped between 1910 and 1914. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

7. Progress on the canal was impeded by many obstacles, like the landslide these workers were clearing in 1913. Flooding, tropical temperatures, and mosquitoes (which transmitted yellow fever) were also major challenges. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

8. A steam shovel working at the Isthmus of Panama in 1906. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

9. Construction of the Gatan Locks in 1909. When completed, each of the locks in the Panama Canal was 110 feet wide by 1000 feet long; the miter gates, which open and close to allow ships to pass through, are 65 feet wide and 7 feet deep, with their height varying from 47 feet to 82 feet depending on their location. Photo courtesy of

10. A panoramic view of the construction on the Gatan Lock. Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy of

11. On August 15, 1914, American steamship the SS Ancon became the first vessel to officially transit the canal (though the actual first transit had taken place in January of that year). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

12. Ships passing through the Gatan Lock in 1915—but they weren't the only thing that traversed the canal: Adventurer Richard Halliburton swam it in 1923. He paid 36 cents in tolls. Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]