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14 of the World's Craziest Roads

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Image credit: Dowson Designer

‘Tis the season for summer road trips! Here are just a few of the world’s craziest roads to either try out or actively avoid on your next adventure. Happy trails!

1. North Yungas Road, Bolivia

Earning its nickname “The Death Road,” this 40-mile stretch of terrifying highway from La Paz, Bolivia, to a town called Coroico in the Amazon jungle used to claim more than two hundred lives per year. In 2006, a safer route was built nearby, but adventure road-trippers on mountain bikes and motorcycles still brave the North Yungas’ murderous curves.

2. Transfăgărășan, Romania

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It‘s difficult to pronounce and hard to drive, but boy is it fun. The former military route through Transylvania features 55 miles of twists, hairpin turns, and a drive by Count Dracula’s castle, Poenari Fortress.

3. Khardung La Pass, China

Image credit: Flickr user Marc_P98

Winding through the Himalayas from the Indian city of Leh to the Chinese city of Kashdar, this pass soars above Asia at 17,582 feet—roughly 3,000 feet higher than the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

4. Yakutsk Road, Russia

Image credit: English Russia

This unpaved Russian highway runs straight through Siberia, where temperatures get so low you can’t wear glasses—the metal will freeze to your face. In the summer, this icy track turns to mud, creating an unspeakable mess so deep in places that hundreds of cars often get marooned in the muck for days.

5. Cairo-Cape Town Road

This occasionally interrupted trans-continental roadway unfurls down the eastern flank of Africa, and isn’t your average Sunday afternoon drive. Hazards include unfriendly borders, potholes the size of VWs, sandstorms, carjackers, herds of wandering camels (not to mention your more run-of-the-mill livestock), nearly impassable gravel pits, and armed bandits in Kenya.

6. James Dalton Highway, Alaska

Image credit: Bureau of Land Management

With 414 miles of gravel and only three towns along the way, you might want to pack a snack before hitting one of the most isolated roads in North America. The James Dalton Highway stretches from just north of Fairbanks, Alaska, to the Arctic Ocean. This northern passage was built for oil truckers traversing from the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, and won a bit of fame in 2009 in a television series, Ice Road Truckers, and in an episode of America’s Toughest Jobs.

7. Col de l’Iseran, France

Image credit: Wormke-Grutman

The highest paved mountain pass in the Alps boasts 12% grades—that’s twice as steep as any U.S. interstate, for those of you keeping track—and reaches over 9,000 feet. It has been used as a segment in the Tour d’France multiple times, with cyclists racing up 3,000 feet in just over nine miles.

8. Stelvio Pass, Italy

Peaking at 9045 feet, the Italian road in the Eastern Alps boasts 75 hairpin turns and has been called the “best road in the world” by more than a few gearheads.

9. Nurburgring Nordschleife, Germany

By day, it’s a grand prix racetrack. By night? A toll road. As long as you’ve got 24 euros in your pocket, you can navigate the track’s 154 turns whenever you want.

10. Karakoram Highway, China and Pakistan

The highest paved international road, Karakoram weaves through Khunjerab Pass—sometimes topping 15,000 feet. It’s home to the highest concentration of tall peaks in the world. Bring a camera!

11. Trollstigen (“Troll Ladder”), Norway

The bends are tight and the gradient is steep—nine percent—but the view at the end is so rewarding. The Stigfossen waterfall puts how far you’ve climbed into perspective.

12. Col de Turini, France

If not from the driver’s seat, you’ve probably seen this road from your couch. It’s been televised the world over. Its hairpins were made famous by the Monte Carlo Rally and, for a time, a stage of the Tour de France.

13. Mount Fuji Touge Roads, Japan

The mountain passes are insanely windy, but also insanely beautiful. Some of the pavement leading to and from Fuji’s caldera is lined with budding pink cherry trees.

14. Eyre Highway, Australia

This last road isn't crazy like the others, but it is crazy straight. The eastern portion of this Australian highway ribbons through the flat, treeless and aptly named Nullarbor Plain, and boasts the longest turn-less stretch of highway in the world: from Balladonia to Caiguna, the road unfolds for 91.1 miles without so much as a curve.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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