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National Geographic

10 Iconic Photos from 125 Years of National Geographic

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National Geographic

National Geographic's Power of Photography issue—on stands now—celebrates 125 years of beautiful, heart-stopping, iconic pictures snapped by National Geographic's photographers. "Today photography has become a global cacophony of freeze-frames. Millions of pictures are uploaded every minute," author Robert Draper writes. "It’s on this hyper-egalitarian, quasi-Orwellian, all-too-camera-ready 'terra infirma' that National Geographic’s photographers continue to stand out. Why they do so is only partly explained by the innately personal choices (which lens for which lighting for which moment) that help define a photographer’s style. Instead, the very best of their images remind us that a photograph has the power to do infinitely more than document. It can transport us to unseen worlds."

You can get transported to a few of those unseen worlds below, and to many more by reading the cover story.

All photos and captions via National Geographic.

1. Whitefish, Michigan, 1906

Photo by George Shiras/National Geographic

Photography pioneer George Shiras made the first nighttime wildlife photos. Here he demonstrates his revolving camera tray, mounted jacklight, and handheld flashgun.

2. Machu Picchu, Peru, 1913

Photo by Hiram Bingham/National Geographic

An elevated view of about half of Machu Picchu, the lost mountaintop city of the Inca in the Peruvian Andes. National Geographic supported Bingham's excavations at the site from 1912 to 1915.

3. Texas, 1939

Photo by Luis Marden/National Geographic

A cowgirl dropped a nickel in a parking meter to hitch her pony. When this photo was taken El Paso was still a highly horse-conscious town with many cattle-ranch residents.

4. Kuwait, 1991

Photo by Steve McCurry/National Geographic

Under the black clouds of burning oil fields during the Gulf War, camels forage desperately for shrubs and water in southern Kuwait. Front-line photographs of regions ravaged by human strife can also illuminate war’s environmental cost.

5. South Africa, 1996

Photo by Chris Johns/National Geographic

A lion pushes through a dust storm in Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, South Africa. The weather had worsened to the point that it didn’t notice the photographer's approach. "I shot three rolls of him and just one picture turned out—serendipity," says Johns.

6. Canada, 2004

Photo by Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Its image mirrored in icy water, a polar bear travels submerged—a tactic often used to surprise prey. Scientists fear global warming could drive bears to extinction sometime this century.

7. Jökulsárlón, Iceland, 2009

Photo by James Balog/National Geographic

Destined to melt, an 800-pound chunk of ice glowed in the moonlight. It washed up in a lagoon created by a receding glacier, part of a worldwide shrinkage of glacial ice.

8. Afghanistan, 2010

Photo by Lynsey Addario/National Geographic

Noor Nisa, about 18, was pregnant, and her water had just broken. Her husband was determined to get her to the hospital, but his car broke down, and he went to find another vehicle. The photographer ended up taking Noor Nisa, her mother and her husband to the hospital, where she gave birth to a baby girl.  

9. Gulf of California, Mexico, 2011

Photo by Brian Skerry/National Geographic

Snared and doomed by a gill net, a thresher shark is among an estimated 40 million sharks killed each year just for their fins. Drawing attention to this unsustainable practice has led some countries to ban the trade of shark fins, considered a delicacy in Asia.

10. Sequoia National Park, California, 2012

Photo by Michael Nichols/National Geographic

This photo is a mosaic composed of 126 images—click to enlarge. Cloaked in the snows of California’s Sierra Nevada, the 3,200-year-old giant sequoia called the President rises 247 feet. Two other sequoias have wider trunks, but none has a larger crown, say the scientists who climbed it. The figure at top seems taller than the other climbers because he’s standing forward on one of the great limbs.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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