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5 Things Built in Places You Wouldn't Expect

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Typically, when one needs to have a building constructed, they’ll put it in a spot that makes sense. You build a marina next to the water, not by a parking lot a few miles away. Apparently, these people didn't get the memo and located their buildings in very unintuitive places.

1. A Supercomputer Inside a Century-Old Chapel 

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In movies, supercomputers are always located in big, modern facilities with lots of bright lights and white walls. The MareNostrum supercomputer in Barcelona got part of that right—it does have lots of bright lights. But its facility is decidedly less-than-modern: the MareNostrum (Latin for “our sea,” but Romans used it specifically to refer to the Mediterranean Sea) is located in a one-hundred-year-old Spanish church.

The chapel, formerly called Torre Girona, was a Catholic church that was deconsecrated and given to the Technical University of Catalonia. In 2005, the building was reborn as the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, home of MareNostrum, which at the time was the fifth most powerful supercomputer in the world. It had fallen to the 465th most powerful until an upgrade earlier this year; MareNostrum is currently the 29th most powerful supercomputer on Earth.

2. A Nuclear Reactor In the Middle of London

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There’s a recurring phrase when it comes to nuclear reactors: Not In My Back Yard, or NIMBY for short. In many cases, the public doesn’t mind nuclear power. What bothers people is having it within a few miles of their homes. So imagine how shocked Londoners were when they found out that a nuclear reactor had been secretly operating in the heart of one of the largest cities in the world for over 30 years.

The reactor, called JASON, was a government research reactor used primarily for training purposes. And although it was quite small, it still produced nuclear fuel that was 30 times more radioactive than that produced in commercial scale reactors. On top of that, it was located in an officially “nuclear-free zone.”

Also interesting is that the reactor was housed in a 17th century hospital. The former Greenwich Hospital, now the Old Royal Naval College, was the home of the JASON reactor from 1963 to 1999, when it was finally dismantled.

(It’s also worth mentioning that Kodak operated a similar nuclear reactor in the middle of Rochester, New York, which it kept hidden from the public. It was dismantled in 2006.)

3. Churches in Antarctica

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No matter where you are in the world, you’re typically never far from a place of worship. The one exception, you're probably thinking, is Antarctica—but you'd be wrong. It turns out, even our coldest, least populated continent has places where people can fulfill their spiritual needs.

There are approximately a half-dozen churches peppering our southernmost landmass, serving the 5000 or so people who may inhabit it at any given time.

These include The Chapel of the Snows, a non-denominational Christian church (which has also held services for people of other faiths and even hosts AA meetings), the beautiful Trinity Church (above), a Russian Orthodox church on King George Island, and the St. Ivan Rilski Chapel, which is little more than a simple single-room building with a few candelabra and religious paintings hung on the walls.

4. A Sculpture Park Under the Ocean

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Say you had a hankering to expand your cultural awareness and check out some sculptures. If you live in a big city, there’s a chance you’ve got a few here and there, dotting the landscape. Maybe there's a local art museum with some sculptures on exhibit. And that’s about it. Where else would you even look?

One place you probably wouldn’t think you could see whole tons (literally) of sculpted artworks, though, is a dozen or so meters under the ocean. And yet just a few miles from the west coast of Grenada lies not only one of the biggest statuary parks in the world, but the only one that’s completely submerged. Featuring over 65 different installations, the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park is the brainchild of artist Jason deCaires Taylor. It includes sculpted rings of children, a writer at his desk, and a whole lot of disembodied stone heads. Just one of the numerous sets of statues weighs approximately 15 tons.

An added bonus is that the statues are environmentally friendly and promote the growth of coral, which is massively beneficial since much of Grenada’s natural reefs were destroyed by hurricanes in 2004.

5. A Temple on the Side of a Cliff

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While you may not find it in as uninhabited a place as Antarctica, China has a unique religious building of its own, and it’s in a place you wouldn’t expect anything to be built. The Xuankong Temple, otherwise known as The Hanging Temple, is built into a sheer rock face nearly 250 feet above ground. (And the nearest city, Datong, is about 40 miles away, so while it may not be in the middle of a tundra, it is pretty isolated.)

According to legend, the temple was started by one monk, Liao Ran, 1500 years ago. It’s been renovated and expanded in the centuries since, but the temple itself is (obviously, judging from how long it’s stuck around) remarkably sturdy. It’s made from a series of beams placed into holes that were carved directly into the cliff, plus a large support beam that’s built into the bedrock below.

There’s also one other unique thing about Xuankong—it is the only temple in China that encompasses all three of the nation’s historical religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]