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Courtesy of Barry Clifford

Barry Clifford on Finding the Santa Maria—and Why The Story Isn't Over Yet

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Courtesy of Barry Clifford

"I can't imagine what else it might be," Barry Clifford said earlier today at a press conference held at the New York headquarters of the Explorers Club. He was referring to the wreckage he discovered off the northern coast of Haiti that has been tentatively reported to be the remains of Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria.

Clifford was all but adamant that this is the historic ship. "We're looking for a big pile of stones in a space the size of Yankee Stadium in clear water," he said of the search. "It's not nuclear physics." So why, then, had the ship gone undiscovered for over 500 years? Even Clifford didn't realize the wreck that he found and photographed in 2003 was the Santa Maria until recently.


All studies of Christopher Columbus rely on a detailed primary document: his diary. Like other explorers and archeologists, Clifford knew it would be the key to finding the Santa Maria: "[Columbus] wrote it knowing it would be scrutinized." And that instilled a very valuable sense of urgency.

At 11:00pm on Christmas Eve 1492, Columbus wrote that he went to sleep with the Santa Maria "standing" in the Bay of Campeche. An hour later, the ship ran ashore so quietly, according to Columbus, that no one on board even woke up.

Two things about the entry stood out: The first was Columbus' notion that the ship was standing still. "I knew after diving in this area that there’s no way you can stand still because of the current," Clifford said. The second thing that stood out was the relative silence of the crash, which would have been impossible had Columbus run aground on a coral reef. Clifford (and anyone else searching for the Santa Maria) knew they were looking for a sandy patch consistent with modern understandings of the currents around the coast.

And yet for years, excavators found nothing—because they were looking in the wrong place. Columbus wrote that the wreck was located one and a half leagues from La Navidad, the first European colony built in the "New World" in the days after the wreck using timber stripped from the ship. (Incidentally, La Navidad did not last long—when Columbus returned the following year, the fort was in ruins and the 39 men left behind had all been murdered by local tribes.) But one by one, targets (objects identified by magnetometer survey) at the correct distance from the assumed location were ruled out—until a proposition by the University of Florida's Dr. Kathy Deegan that put La Navidad two miles further west than originally thought.


That opened up a new range of possibilities, but Clifford still initially discounted the wreck that is now thought to be the Santa Maria when he first discovered it in 2003. He and his son photographed and surveyed everything at the site, but misidentified a long, tubular object.

"In 2012, I sat up in the middle of the night and realized, that's not a tube, that's a lombard," Clifford said, referring to a specific type of 15th century Spanish cannon known to have been aboard Columbus' ships. It was just the eighth of its kind found in the Americas and, after comparing photos from the wreck to research on lombards, represented the smoking gun in the mystery of the Santa Maria.


But the story is far from over. Clifford and his team returned to the site recently only to find many of the artifacts, including the telltale cannon, had been looted by what Clifford believes to have been opportunists from the Dominican Republic who got word of the valuable nature of the wreck. He calls this an "emergency situation"—especially since he was forced to leave the site unattended after contracting cholera.

Clifford expressed concern that Haiti is unprepared to take advantage of what could be a unique and valuable source of tourism and revenue. "It is a very important resource for Haiti and it has to be protected," he said. "But they need help."

Professor Charles Beeker of Indiana University will lead the excavation, but Clifford has hopes for an international effort to protect and preserve the wreck. He imagines that eventually a traveling exhibit can be brought to life showcasing the Santa Maria to the public, with proceeds benefiting Haiti.

SANTA MARIA PRESS VIDEO from Dov Freedman on Vimeo.

Password for the video: octoberfilms. All Photos Courtesy of Barry Clifford.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]