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9 Strange Sounds No One Can Explain

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Everyone has a favorite Wikipedia rabbit hole. Mine is “List of Unexplained Sounds.” I can’t remember how I first made my way to the page, but its array of sonic mysteries has shown me that while space is incredible, our planet is its own frontier of intrigue and unexplainable phenomena.

1. Upsweep

Upsweep is an unidentified sound that’s existed at least since the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory began recording SOSUS—an underwater sound surveillance system with listening stations around the world—in 1991. The sound “consists of a long train of narrow-band upsweeping sounds of several seconds duration each.” The source location is difficult to identify, but it's in the Pacific, around the halfway point between Australia and South America. Upsweep changes with the seasons, becoming loudest in spring and autumn, though it isn’t clear why. The leading theory is that it’s related to volcanic activity. 

2. The Whistle

The Whistle was recorded on July 7, 1997, and only one hydrophone—the underwater microphones used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—picked it up. The location is unknown and limited information has made it difficult to speculate on the source. 

3. Bloop

Bloop is the big kahuna in unexplained sounds. In 1997 (a big year for auditory ocean mysteries), an extremely powerful, ultra-low-frequency sound was detected at various listening stations thousands of miles apart and traced to somewhere west of the southern tip of South America. The sound only lasted about a minute and and was heard repeatedly over the summer, but not since. Bloop is generally believed to be the sound of a massive icequake, but scientists haven’t totally ruled out the possibility that the sound originated from something “organic.” 

That’s where things get eerie. If an animal was the source of Bloop, it would have to be larger than a blue whale. The most fanciful of all theories stems from the fact that Bloop’s location is somewhat close to author H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional sunken city of R’lyeh, where the creature known as Cthulhu lies “dead but dreaming.” Cthulhu can best be described as part man, dragon, and octopus, which seems as likely a source as any for the ocean’s greatest aural anomaly. 

4. Julia

Julia was recorded on March 1, 1999, lasted for roughly 15 seconds, and was loud enough to be heard by the entire Equatorial Pacific Ocean hydrophone array. An Antarctic iceberg run aground is the leading suspect for its source. 

5. Slow Down

Slow Down was first recorded on May 19, 1997 and is also credited to an iceberg running aground, though some people insist it might be a giant squid. The sound, lasting about 7 minutes, gradually decreases in frequency, hence the name “slow down.” Like Upsweep, the sound has been heard periodically since it was initially detected. 

6. The Hum

The Hum has been recorded on several occasions, mostly during the last 50 years or so. In these cases, there have been reports of a relentless and troubling low-frequency humming noise that can only heard by a certain portion of the population. It’s difficult to pinpoint when instances of the Hum began, but it’s been well-documented since the 1970s, and since then, cases have popped up all over the world—from Ontario, Canada to Taos, New Mexico to Bristol, England to Largs, Scotland and Auckland, New Zealand.

In most instances, the affected group only makes up around two percent of the population, but for those individuals, the Hum is largely inescapable and impossible to track. Those affected report never having heard noises before, and say the Hum is generally heard indoors and becomes louder at night. It’s also most common in rural and suburban areas and among people between age 55 and 70. 

Scientists have long investigated the cause of the drone, occasionally tracing it to industrial equipment emitting particular frequencies. For the most part, though, the sound has left the world completely puzzled. The list of other possible culprits is long and wide-ranging—wireless communication devices, power or gas lines, electromagnetic radiation, radio waves, or earth tremors are all suspects. Because the Hum appears and disappears and because the cause may vary from case to case, the phenomenon still baffles researchers. At this point, a few things are clear: The Hum is real and likely a byproduct of 21st-century living. 

7. Skyquakes

Skyquakes, or unexplained sonic booms, have been heard around the world for the last 200 years or so, usually near bodies of water. These headscratchers have been reported on the Ganges in India, the East Coast and inland Finger Lakes of the U.S., near the North Sea, as well as in Australia, Japan, and Italy. The sound—which has been described as mimicking massive thunder or cannon fire—has been chalked up to everything from meteors entering the atmosphere to gas escaping from vents in the Earth's surface (or the gas exploding after being trapped underwater as a result of biological decay) to earthquakes, military aircraft, underwater caves collapsing, and even a possible byproduct of solar and/or earth magnetic activity. 

8. UVB-76

UVB-76, also known as "The Buzzer,” has been showing up on shortwave radios for decades. It broadcasts at 4625 kHz and after repeated buzzing noises, a voice occasionally reads numbers and names in Russian. The source and purpose has never been determined.

9. 52-Hertz whale

This animal, also known as the loneliest whale in the world, calls at a highly unusual 52-hertz, well above the normal frequency. Scientists have been listening to 52-Hertz for decades, and recently, filmmakers raised $400,000 on Kickstarter to seek the mammal out. It should be noted that the fundraiser reached its goal through the help of Leonardo DiCaprio, another mysterious beast.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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