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The Weird Physics of H.P. Lovecraft’s "Corpse-City," R’lyeh

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iStock/Erin McCarthy

According to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, somewhere sunken in the South Pacific there is a “nightmare corpse-city” called R’lyeh, “built in measureless eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars.” In his house in this city, the great old god Cthulhu waits, dead and dreaming, for his return to power. In The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft’s most famous story, a crew of sailors accidentally discover a risen part of the city, an island with a “coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry,” accidentally wake Cthulhu from his sleep, and are either killed or driven mad.

Even if you ignore the monstrous god waiting in its vaults, the architecture and landscape of R’lyeh are enough to test one’s sanity. Exploring the island, the sailors soon discover that “all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset,” and they struggle to comprehend and describe their surroundings. “One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable,” one of the sailors, Gustaf Johansen, wrote in his log. Even when they discover a simple door, the sailors couldn’t tell if it “lay flat like a trap-door or slantwise like an outside cellar-door” because the “geometry of the place was all wrong.”

Of course, none of it—the sailors, the city, the island, the dead-dreaming god—are real. If it was, though, would science be able to explain the weird geometry of the city? Benjamin Tippett, a theoretical physicist and mathematician at the University of New Brunswick, gave it a shot. His playful paper, “Possible Bubbles of Spacetime Curvature in the South Pacific,” is a lot of fun and reads like a mashup of a standard science paper and one of Lovecraft’s own stories. Tippett isn’t shy about pulling out the Lovecraftian adjectives and cites the various letters and documents that drive “The Call of Cthulhu” like another scientist might reference previous research. In the process, he sort of becomes a Lovecraftian narrator himself, a scholarly man digging a bit too far into forbidden knowledge on his way to developing what he calls a “unified theory of Cthulhu.”

After poring over the clues and descriptions left by Lovecraft’s characters and employing his “mad general relativity skills,” Tippett thinks that the geometry of R’lyeh was all wrong—not because the architecture curves and angles in strange ways, but because of the space the city occupies. R’lyeh, he says, lies in a “region of anomalously curved spacetime,” and the bizarre geometry of the buildings and changing alignment of the horizon are the consequences of the “gravitational lensing of images therein.” 

In a region of curved spacetime, Tippett explains, light doesn’t travel in reliably straight trajectories, so objects beyond the curved region appear warped and skewed, and the relative positions of two objects, or the flatness of a large object, in the region are difficult to discern. A visitor to R’lyeh, he says, would “see the outside world (and other distant objects upon the island) as if through a large fishbowl. Thus, the horizon would no longer be reliably straight, and the sun and moon would swing wildly through the sky depending on one’s position.”

Tippett thinks his “spacetime bubble hypothesis” can also explain the oddities of how time is perceived in R’lyeh, and maybe even address the “central myth of the Cthulhu cult.” Time, he says, passes slower inside an area of curved spacetime than it does outside of it. This time dilation is probably what allowed the sailor Johansen to “survive adrift at sea for nearly two weeks … in a state of helpless dementia.” It could also mean that Cthulhu, whose cultists describe him as dead and dreaming, neither alive nor truly dead, is simply “in a position where it does not feel the passage of time.” At the center of the spacetime bubble, the god could wait, unchanging, for aeons.

As to what caused or created the curved spacetime bubble surrounding R’lyeh, Tippett can only guess. “An exotic type of matter with which human science is entirely unfamiliar is required for such a geometry to exist,” he says. “Indeed, this is the very species of energy which is theoretically required to build a warp drive or a cloaking device. Only a people capable of crossing vast cosmic distances could have constructed Johansen’s bubble.” 

Or, as he says on his blog, “In proving Johansen wasn’t crazy I accidentally figure out that Cthulhu is probably real, responsible for the island … and I also figure out what he’s doing down there. Of course, as a brave man of science, I can’t go and admit that Cthulhu exists … but you can tell…”

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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