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5 Amazing Things People Buried in the Desert

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Heat, sand, and isolation make the desert a great place for treasure to hide.

1. A Fleet of Fighter Jets

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During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, one of the things that seemed curious was the enemy’s lack of planes. The American military knew that the Iraqis had air squadrons and just assumed they had stayed grounded because they knew a win against American and British firepower was pretty much impossible. But a few months later someone noticed a tailfin sticking out of the sand near a military base.

After a lot of digging, they found about 30 brand new planes buried under ten feet of sand. While the government was quick to emphasize that the planes were not actually weapons of mass destruction, Donald Rumsfeld pointed out the fact that thousands of troops had been within a “stone’s throw” of giant aircraft for three months and not noticed, which meant the WMDs they were looking for could still be out there.

2. Treasure Maps

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The world famous Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered in 1946 by a local shepherd. Over the course of the next decade, archeologists joined in the search of the surrounding desert caves for more ancient documents. In 1952, one team found two rolled-up copper scrolls. It took them five years to figure out how to unroll the scrolls without destroying them, but in the end they managed to cut the copper into 23 thin pieces. The researchers then put them back together and set about translating the Ancient Hebrew writing. While it was impossible to decipher the entire thing, we do know that the scrolls are directions on how to find a huge stash of treasure, “a money chest and its contents, of a weight of seventeen talents,” estimated to be worth millions of dollars today.

Unfortunately, the directions have lost their usefulness in the last 2000 years, so unless you can figure out where the “gutter” of the water tank is, and from there find the tunnel under the “second enclosure,” this treasure may remain hidden in the desert forever.

3. A Priceless Library

In the 1500s, Timbuktu was a thriving city on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and for 30 years was home to the University of Sankoré. For three decades the university’s founder, Mohammed abu Bakr al-Wangari, purchased books on African and Islamic history, the sciences, religion, and literature. But after his death in 1594, the library he built up was divided among his relatives in the city and forgotten about for centuries.

It was only in the last decade that a project to recover as many of the books as possible began. So far dozens of these priceless, hand-written texts have been found in caves, derelict buildings, underground chambers, and hidden away in chests. Many of the books are water-logged or have been virtually destroyed by termites, but others are in surprisingly good condition thanks to the dryness and heat of the desert. A project is now underway to preserve the books, which are unprecedented in their coverage of medieval West African history.

4. The World's Oldest Pot Stash

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Back in 2008, archaeologists found almost two pounds of marijuana in a 2,700-year-old grave in the Gobi Desert. "It could have been for pain control," according to Dr. Ethan Russo, who wrote about the discovery in the Journal of Experimental Botany. "It could have been for other medicinal properties. It could have been used as an aid to divination." The deceased may have been a man of status. In addition to the cannabis, researchers found equestrian and archery equipment in the tomb.

According to Discovery News, the ancient stash is now at Turpan Museum in China.

5. Incriminating Documents


In 2003, Shell Oil was in a bit of a pickle. During the 1990s there had been an oil spill from one of their pipelines. Shell had since sold that pipeline to another company, which was being sued over well water contaminated by the spill. The current owner needed documents from Shell. And since Shell had absolutely nothing to hide, they took 190 boxes full of accounting ledgers and environmental reports from that time and buried them 40 feet deep in the New Mexico desert.

The documents were only discovered when a former employee admitted he knew where they were. And this wasn’t a simple misunderstanding. There was no landfill in the area, and as the state’s Attorney General pointed out, “It's just very unusual to bury records in the middle of the desert.” Shell tried to claim it was just “office refuse.”

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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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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]