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National Geographic Channel

7 Things We Learned from David Rees

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National Geographic Channel

Going Deep With David Rees wraps up its first season Monday night at 10pm on the National Geographic Channel. I sat down with him for a full interview, but made this handy list so you can enjoy the highlights.

1. He Has a Pooter

In the How to Climb a Tree episode, Rees encountered his first pooter, and ultimately received one as a gift.

REES: "I have the pooter that "Canopy" Meg gave me, yes."

I urge you to watch this clip to understand what a pooter is:

2. He Might Have Broken His Hand in the Final Episode

In Monday night's How to Shake Hands episode, Rees did something that led to his left hand feeling a little wrong. Like, a little broken-bone wrong. At his mother's insistence, he's finally getting it checked out.

REES: "I've got my Mom emailing me every day asking if I've done it. And I have not been, I've just been putting it off. I don't want to know if it's broken, I don't want to have a cast or whatever."

3. He's Awesome at Flipping Coins Now

In the How to Flip a Coin episode, Rees picked up some serious knowledge:

REES: "I practiced so much on that [1855 half-dollar coin] that I'm not sure I can apply my technique to a quarter, because the quarter is smaller and lighter, and I'm so used to this particular coin. It's like a pool player having a favorite pool cue. Yeah. I'm definitely good at [flipping] it, and I know where to hit it to make it go "bing!" and all that stuff."

4. Party Hole or Satanic Ritual Site?

In the How to Dig a Hole episode, Rees dug a "Party Hole" on a golf course. It was later filled in and the sod carefully replaced, but it hasn't quite disappeared yet.

REES: "A friend who's a member of that golf club sent me a photo of it a couple months later, because it looked kinda creepy. It looks kind of like evidence of a Satanic ritual. It looks like this weird circle in the middle of the golf course that hasn't quite healed all the way. So the Party Hole is gone except in our hearts."

5. He Likes to Hang Out at the Airport and Tweet...at Christmas

This:

REES: "One of my favorite holiday traditions, when I'm flying somewhere for Christmas, is to go to the airport ahead of time—because I love the energy of airports at holidays—and just sit around and tweet all the people that I'm looking it. And people got really into that, for some reason. I think it's just because of the spirit of the holidays."

6. He Hates Doughnuts, But They're in Every Episode

If you watch the show carefully, you'll see a surprising number of doughnut references. At the very least, doughnuts appear in the opening credits, but they also creep in during the show. This is especially odd given that Rees hates doughnuts.

REES: "The whole thing about doughnuts is weird. I'm not actually into doughnuts or sweets at all. It's just this thing where—I'll explain what happened. We were shooting at this mine in Colorado, for How to Dig a Hole, and the staff at the mine, before we shot, they had to give us an intro talk and a safety lecture about it, and they brought in pastries from a local bakery. And they had these doughnuts that were really bright pink with sprinkles, and I thought it would be cool to take one of these really bright, happy-looking doughnuts down into the deep, dark mine and just get a shot of me eating a doughnut in a mine."

7. He's Never Heard of Fat Guys in the Woods

Rees was very patient when I asked him to tell me whether all of IMDB's suggestions for related shows (as computed by some algorithm, I guess) were actually shows that he might like. He hadn't heard of most of them, but humored me. Here's part of that exchange, as I read off the names of shows:

HIGGINS: Okay, this one's called Talk to the Animals.

REES: No, I hate animals. Next.

HIGGINS: It's called Fat Guys in the Woods.

REES: You can't be serious.

HIGGINS: I'm completely serious. It's the final recommendation.

REES: That's the actual name of the show, it's called Fat Guys in the Woods? What's the network?

HIGGINS: The Weather Channel.

REES: Oh! There we go. ...

Read our full interview for the thrilling conclusion, plus a bunch of stuff about SkyMall and gray shirts.

Where to Watch Going Deep With David Rees

By the way, at 1:45 this will blow your mind. A crazy paper airplane that flies indefinitely, followed by a boomerang plane (!!!):

You can enjoy the fist-pumping tenth episode of Going Deep With David Rees Monday, August 25, at 10pm on the National Geographic Channel. (David typically live-tweets the episodes.) You can catch up on older episodes for free on Hulu. I like all of them, but the most brain-bending is probably How to Make a Paper Airplane. Last week's How to Climb a Tree episode is great if you like lemurs and pooters.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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