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Nick Greene

Is It Possible to Ride the Entire New York Subway System in a Single Day?

Original image
Nick Greene

During a recent commute into work, I was staring at a transit map so as to avoid eye contact with my fellow passengers when a simple question popped into my head: Is it possible to ride the entire New York subway system in a single day? Coworkers and friends didn't have the answer, so I decided to crunch some numbers:

- If you untangled all the separate tracks of New York City's subway system and laid them out in a straight line, you would get a 659-mile-long trail that, pointed westward from Grand Central Station, would end up somewhere around South Bend, Indiana.

- On Amtrak, it takes 17 hours and 9 minutes to get to South Bend, Indiana.

- 17 hours and 9 minutes is less than one day.

- Amtrak is a train.

- The subway is a train.

- Therefore, it is possible to to ride the entire New York subway system in a single day.

Case closed.

Even though my logic and math are flawless, I wanted to double-check to make sure, so last week I attempted to ride the entirety of New York City's subway system in a single day. It really shouldn't have been too difficult considering that, if done correctly, it would only cost $2.50 and require little more from me than the ability to sit still.

I hopped on last Wednesday, a date just shy of the 110th anniversary of the opening of the New York City subway—October 27, 1904. Now, that anniversary is a little murky. Elevated commuter train lines were operational in Manhattan as early as 1870. Also, inventor Alfred Ely Beach opened his 312-foot-long subterranean pneumatic transit tunnel beneath Broadway that year. Beach's subway operated via wind power; a gigantic fan nicknamed the "Western Tornado" blew a single car back and forth along a track. It was an ingenious contraption and wonderfully loud.

Wikimedia Commons

What the MTA acknowledges as the birth of the New York subway is the 1904 launch of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, a privately owned, 9.1-mile long, 28-station subterranean train system that ran from City Hall up to 145th Street (that section is now part of the 4, 5, and 6 lines). It was greeted with little fanfare; The New York Times teased the opening ceremony with a single story on page six—headlined "Economical Subway Opening"—and reported that "it was decided that a few dollars might be spent for invitations issued to officials and special guests, but there will be no music, fireworks, or flag waving."

The current New York subway system has 468 stations, and assuming I would be able to succeed with my attempt, I would be seeing all of them. Well, almost—I laid down some ground rules beforehand:

1. I would not exit any station.
2. For multiple lines that run along the same route (e.g. the E, M, F, and R from Jackson Heights to Forest Hills), taking just one of those will count as a ride on all the others.
3. I would have to complete it in one go.
4. No Staten Island. (Sorry Staten Island, I would have to break rule 1 to visit you, and if I break my first rule then what kind of man am I?)
5. I must learn a valuable lesson.

So, with little more than a notebook and the five rules listed above, I hopped on the F train at Bergen Street around 9:00 a.m. and rode out to Coney Island. While every Manhattan-bound train in the city was jam-packed, the cars rumbling in the opposite direction were quiet and sparsely-filled.

After two stops, my lone car-mate departed and the train climbed aboveground. Considering the average weekday ridership of the New York subway system is around 5,465,034, finding yourself alone in a car during rush hour is a pretty lovely aberration. The F and G Trains service the highest station in New York (Smith-9 Sts) which, at 88 feet, offers a pretty lovely view. I gazed out the window and said, "It's all downhill from here," which is a tasty little bit of subway humor if you've brushed up on your MTA fun facts. Good thing no one was there to hear it, as I'm sure they would've laughed so hard they would have pulled the emergency brake.

I rode alone all the way to Coney Island and, at West 8th St, experienced a ten minute delay. It's a testament to the New York subway system's efficiency that this was the longest single delay I faced all day, and I spent it peering out the open door, muttering, "C'mon' c'mon," even though I literally had nowhere to be.

We started moving again and soon the Cyclone and Ferris Wheel appeared out the window. Apparently, cold and drizzly October mornings are slow for amusement parks because no one was riding any of the fun rides.

At Coney Island's massive covered station, I switched to the Q and rode back into the hub of what I began to think of as a pinwheel. I sat across from a European family who had trekked out that morning to pick up Nathan's Famous, and their A.M. dogs stunk up the train. European tourist families are a common sight on the New York subway during non-rush daytime hours, and I noticed that, without fail, they always have at least one item of matching clothing. This family all wore the same sneakers, and the patriarch balanced his soggy bag of fast food on top of his. It was precisely at this moment that I realized I hadn't planned where or how I'd eat lunch and dinner. Naturally, this line of thinking progressed to questions about when I'd have to use the bathroom and—oh no oh no—where I would be able do that.

[Note: There are operational public restrooms at various NYC subway stations, although there is no telling whether or not they will be locked or what condition they are in.]

At Prospect Park, I took the shuttle to Franklin Ave., hopped on the C, transferred to the A at Nostrand, and headed out to Far Rockaway. So far, my commute looked like this:

At about 11:30 a.m., I came across my first Showtime! of the day. (Some background: There are ubiquitous groups of subway breakdancers who shout, "It's showtime!" before performing a routine that can range anywhere between impressively acrobatic to face-kickingly clumsy. Much like John Lithgow in Footloose, the NYPD now considers dancing an arrestable offense; as of April 2014, 46 subway breakdancers were charged with reckless endangerment, compared with two such charges in all of 2013.)

Two little girls clapped and gleefully chanted, "Showtime!" over and over again as the dancers performed backflips in the aisles. The girls' parents groaned and checked their phones the second we climbed back aboveground. As more and more underground portions of the subway get updated with cell reception, the act of checking one's phone at the first hint of sunlight should become obsolete, and perhaps people will start enjoying the view again. (The previous observation was transcribed on my phone, which I took out of my pocket and stared at as soon as I got service.)

At 31 miles long, the A Train is the longest single subway line in New York, and it features the greatest distance between any two sequential stations—Howard Beach and Broad Channel (3.5 miles). This route takes you over Jamaica Bay and you rhythmically rock along a narrow causeway that was literally washed away in sections by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The MTA had to remove over 3,000 tons of debris in order to restore A Train service to the Rockaways—a process that took a full seven months.

Visiting the Rockaways is worth the long ride, however, even if it's only to smell the sea water and remind yourself that most of New York is, in fact, an archipelago off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. After my quick trip to the beach(-adjacent elevated subway platform), I doubled back into Queens, where my ride went something like this:

A Train to Broadway Junction --> J Train to Jamaica Center --> E Train to Queensboro Plaza --> 7 Train to Flushing and back again to Queensboro Plaza --> N Train to Astoria.

I had covered considerable ground in Queens and genuinely believed that I would pull this off. Unfortunately, I noticed I forgot a few small areas that I would need to return to in order to cross them off the list. (This would never happen):

High schools began to get out as I made my way to Flushing and the 7 train filled with teens at every stop. A group that got on at 82nd Street had the most incredible conversation that effortlessly flowed from talking about a recent Bobby Shmurda concert ("He didn't even do the dance!") to the ongoing tetrad of lunar eclipses ("A Blood Moon is just a Harvest Moon").

After reaching Astoria I began to think I had achieved some sort of runner's high despite the fact that I had pretty much been sedentary all day. Turns out I was just hungry, and it was in this hunger-borne confusion that I crossed the platform and accidentally got on a Q Train headed into Manhattan. In no uncertain terms, this is where the S Train hit the fan.

We rumbled back underground and, at 59th Street, my sense of time completely abandoned me. I attempted to knock the Bronx off before rush hour (it was already around 4:30 at the time), so I took the 5 Train all the way up to Eastchester-Dyre Ave. and back, only to hit Manhattan again during the busiest time of the day. I began missing trains because of overcrowding and decided to wing the rest of my attempt. Here's how the wheels really started to fall off:

5 Train to 125th --> 6 Train to Hunts Point --> Get off at Hunts Point to unsuccessfully look for a bathroom --> Get back on going in the wrong direction --> Inexplicably transfer back onto a 5 train at 125th --> Get off at 138th Street-Grand Concourse and use the restroom at a Checkers --> Get Back on the 5 and immediately wish I bought food at Checkers --> Take the 2 to 96th Street --> Go uptown on the 1 to Van Cortland Park --> Switch back onto the 2 at 96th Street and head downtown.

On the 2 Train headed downtown, a woman's umbrella accidentally opened and speared me in the stomach. That was a highlight of the 2 Train, because at least there was enough room for her umbrella to open. At Fulton I boarded the J Train, headed over the Manhattan Bridge to the Myrtle M, took that to the Myrtle-Wykoff L, and finally got onto a G Train. A little after 8 p.m., I abandoned my attempt to ride the entire New York subway system. I was tired and wanted a cheeseburger. This is how I did:

Looking at the final map, it's clear that with better planning, an earlier start, and about 18 hours to spare, this feat is perfectly doable, so I stand by my original proclamation.

Some stats:

Duration: Approx. 10 hours, 30 Minutes

Stations Passed: 202 (out of a possible 468)

Lines Ridden: 17 (out of a possible 25)

Showtime!s Witnessed: 2

Statens Islanded: 0

Food Consumed: 1 candy bar from a station newsstand

Longest Delay "Due to Train Traffic": ~10 Minutes

Friends Made: 0  :(

Lessons Learned: A lifetime's worth.


Update: The world record was set recently at 22 hours, 26 minutes and 2 seconds. Number of Showtime!s witnessed remains unknown.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]