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Spy Pigeons and Other Great Moments in the History of Aerial Photography

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In 1858, Frenchman Gaspard Tournachon snapped the world’s first aerial photograph. Photography had only been around for about three decades, so getting a camera in the air was no simple task. Tournachon had to take pictures of the Bièvre valley from a balloon, and thanks to the period’s clunky collodion process, he had to set up a miniature darkroom in the balloon basket! Unfortunately, his photographs no longer exist.

The oldest known surviving aerial photograph was the work of James Wallace Black, who snapped this photo of Boston from a tethered balloon in 1860. He titled the picture: “Boston, as the Eagle and Wild Goose sees it.” 

It wasn’t long before the military considered snatching up the technology. During the Civil War, the Union army used balloons to get a bird’s-eye view of Confederate troops and artillery. Although we know that Black pleaded with Union commanders to give aerial photography a spin, no known shots of rebel formations exist today.  

It’s easy to understand Ulysses S. Grant and company’s hesitance. Even in the best circumstances, flying cumbersome early cameras into the air on balloons was a bit of a pain. In 1882, English meteorologist E. D. Archibald tried a new method when he decided to go fly a kite—multiple kites, actually. He tied a string of kites together and set them sailing, fixing a camera to the final one. A few years later in France, Arthur Batut used a kite to take the world’s first timed aerial photograph, below. 

But as any adolescent boy can tell you, anything a kite can do, a rocket can do better. You know Alfred Nobel as the father of science prizes and dynamite, but he was also a real rocket man. In 1896, he patented “an improved mode of obtaining photographic maps”—which is basically a polite way of saying “awesome rocket-mounted camera.” Nobel designed it so that each launch could produce one photo, taking in the view as the camera gently parachuted to the ground. Nobel sadly died before he could fire a rocket, but his team is said to have launched one. Nobel would be proud to know that his invention blazed the way toward the first images of Earth from space.

In 1908, L. P. Bonvillain became the first man to use an airplane to take an aerial photograph. (The plane was piloted by none other than Wilbur Wright.) Wright was there for history again one year later when he flew the plane that took the world’s first aerial movie.

German apothecary Julius Neubronner found a way to fit cameras onto homing pigeons. Soon enough, the Bavarian Pigeon Corps—originally a team of messenger pigeons—was taking pictures behind enemy lines. That’s right: spy pigeons! Although the birds were easily sniped from the sky and eaten by hungry troops below, Neubronner still managed to snag a patent for his pigeon-camera harness. Decades later, the CIA revived the idea and created a battery-powered pigeon camera. Their mission and its objective remain classified. 

Flying spies may not have taken off, but aerial photography still found quite a few useful applications. Not surprisingly, Texas has always been willing to go big with its aerial projects. A 1927 aerial survey captured Dallas’s White Rock Lake in 37 pairs of photographs taken at 4800 feet. Three years later, a more ambitious project used a plane to take a 93-photo grid that covered all of Dallas as aerial photography helped surveyors make faster, more accurate maps of the growing metropolis. These old sky snapshots of Texas are still great historical curios, but they can’t compare to the amazing clarity and scope of modern aerial photography. 

Want to get the kind of big look at Texas that a vantage point thousands of feet high offers? To marvel at the breathtaking views you can only find in the sky, watch the season premiere of Aerial America online now or tune in to Smithsonian Channel on Sunday, February 23rd, 8 PM ET/PT.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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]