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Proper Pictures

5 Places That Are Still On Fire

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Proper Pictures

Photograph by Flickr user Proper Pictures.

Living near an active volcano can be a little anxiety-producing, but it's not the only fire raging below the Earth's surface. Coal is a long-burning mineral hidden underground that can ignite when the circumstances are right. Those circumstances include contact with air, which happens when we try to take the coal out of the ground for our own purposes. Here are five coal seams that have been burning for a long time.

1. Brennender Berg, Germany

Photograph by Kh80.

Brennender Berg in English is "Burning Mountain," although it is more of a gorge than a mountain. It refers to an area of Germany between the towns of Dudweiler and Sulzbach-Neuweiler, under which a seam of coal has been burning for more than 300 years. In 1688, the tale goes, a shepherd started a wood fire on a tree stump, which burned to the roots and ignited the coal seam. More likely, this was a case of spontaneous combustion. The burning coal seam is now evidenced by glowing embers and sulfurous smoke, rather than flames as in the past. The area is not as dangerous as it was in previous centuries, and is open for visitors. A hike is recommended for days after a rain.

2. Smoking Hills, Canada

Photograph by Ansgar Walk.

The Smoking Hills of Canada are located near Franklin Bay on the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The uninhabited hills (the nearest community is about 65 miles away) are located above the Arctic Circle. Discovered in 1826 by explorer John Franklin, the hills are notable for exuding constant smoke from burning coal underground. The mountains contain large deposits of lignite (brown coal), sulphur, and oil shales. A reaction between sulphur and lignite leads to spontaneous combustion, and it is believed that the lignite has been burning for hundreds of years. The smoke coming from the coal seams is highly acidic, and the lakes surrounding the Smoking Hills are polluted with sulphur dioxide, meaning they're habitable only by species that thrive in acid environments. In 1850, Robert McClure's expedition into the Northwest territory took them to the Smoking Hills. They collected a specimen of the burning minerals, which burned a hole through the captain's mahogany desk. The various chemicals in the burning rock and smoke have left bright stripes of color along the hills. 

3. Burning Mountain, Australia

Photograph from Upper Hunter Tourism.

Officially named Mount Wingen, Burning Mountain is located 139 miles north of Sydney, Australia, and is part of the Burning Mountain Nature Reserve. The mountain was first thought to be a volcano because of the vents spewing sulfurous smoke, but later investigation proved the mountain actually has a burning coal seam running underneath. The traditional story told by the people indigenous to the area centers on a woman whose husband did not come home from a battle. Wanting to die herself, she climbed the mountain, but was instead turned into a stone that cried tears of fire. These burning tears rolled down the mountain and set it aflame. Today, scientists thinks the fire started either after a lightning strike, or by spontaneous combustion.

The mountain's coal seam is two meters thick and 20-30 meters below the surface. Estimates of how long it has been burning range from 5,000 to 15,000 years.

4. Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA

Photograph by Flickr user Scott Drzyzga.

Coal-rich Pennsylvania has endured plenty of coal seam fires, but most eventually are extinguished or burn themselves out. Not so in the town of Centralia. Deep mining left passageways underground as strip mining tore up the surface above. As the coal ran out, the town was left to clean up the pits left behind. In 1962, volunteer firefighters ignited a fire to clean out one pit-turned-landfill in order to make room for more garbage. The fire was doused with water that night, but was found to be burning the next day. More attempts to put the fire out were unsuccessful, and it was discovered that a hole in the pit led to a mine passage. That started the fire down a coal seam, which stymied all attempts to extinguish it. However, others theorize that the coal seam fire already existed before the landfill burning. At any rate, the fire continued for years, long after the town ran out of money to fight it. The underground fire reached downtown by 1979, when a gas station owner (who was also the mayor) measured his gasoline storage tank at 172 degrees! In 1981, a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole, releasing steam and carbon dioxide (he was pulled out by his cousin and survived). The citizens of Centralia abandoned the the unsafe town, accepting government buyouts on their property offered in 1984. The nearby town of Byrnesville was also abandoned because of the underground fire. Centralia was officially condemned in 1992, but a very few residents refused to leave. The 2010 census listed the population of Centralia at ten people. The fire has now been burning for over 50 years

5. eMalahleni, South Africa

Photograph from eo miners.

Coal mining in the Mpumalanga province (formerly East Transvaal) of South Africa centers around the city of eMalahleni, which means "place of coal." It was formerly known under its Afrikaans name, Witbank. The extensive Transvaal and Delagoa Bay Collieries were abandoned in 1953 without reclamation, and parts of the mines have been on fire ever since. Witbank coalfield mines typically had a low coal recovery ratio, and the pillars of coal left behind spontaneously combusted in contact with oxygen. The abandoned underground mine passages collapse unexpectedly, and have injured and killed people occasionally over the years, either from the collapse or the burning coal underneath. 

These are not the only long-burning coal seam fires. They've happened throughout history, and sometimes burn for centuries. There are other underground coal fires burning today as well, all over the world.

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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]