The Crystal Palace: Victorian England’s Version of a Pandora’s Box

In 1851, 19 acres of London’s Hyde Park were suddenly transformed. Over the course of just 19 months, they were ensconced in a building the likes of which had never been seen: a huge conservatory constructed of just glass and cast iron. The building would come to be known as the Crystal Palace, and even though it was temporary, it would become one of Victorian England’s most famous—and influential—structures. 

It was built for the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, a world’s fair dedicated to showing off the spoils of the Industrial Revolution. The exhibition was the brainchild of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, who felt it was time for England to not only show off its industrial might, but inspire and edify its own people with something to be proud of. 

Such a revolutionary exhibition would need a revolutionary building to house it, but that posed a problem when 245 design submissions were deemed unsuitable. Finally, a landscape artist named Joseph Paxton submitted his design: a grandiose structure made of enough glass to house over 8 miles of display space. 

The building itself was jaw-dropping: It was so tall it could enclose entire elm trees and so long it could have fit more than six modern-day football fields. Given that large windows were still an expensive commodity, Paxton’s glittering creation was even more impressive. It immediately became an icon—but what was inside was even more incredible. 

Visitors could peruse industrial wonders like complex textiles and newfangled devices like a forerunner of the fax machine. They could use the first public flush toilets and gush over an exhibit of hundreds of taxidermied animals in adorably comic situations—a novelty that would become one of the more popular exhibits in the Palace. 

But not everyone was in love with the Crystal Palace. The different nations and the technological wonders inside worried some critics, but even worse were the democratic principles that seemed to work within its glass walls. Aristocratic Englishmen saw a threat in a building that emphasized equality over social structures, letting anyone who could scrape together a shilling have a look at the greatest wonders of the world. To traditionalists, the Great Palace felt like a Pandora’s box, a flashy attack on everything they held dear.

And ultimately, it was just that. Dickens hated it, but he wrote Bleak House in part as a response to what he saw as the chaos and irony of a palace built near a slum. Charlotte Brontë called it “a wonderful place—vast strange, new, and impossible to describe.” Its collection formed the impetus for what would become one of London’s most influential institutions: the Victoria and Albert Museum

But perhaps the greatest legacy of the Crystal Palace’s grandeur and accessibility was for ordinary people. There, they were able to see sights that were once reserved only for the elite or those who could afford to travel the world. They experienced a truly international collection that oriented them towards the existence of other nations and ultimately encouraged freer trade even as it justified further colonial expansion.

When the Crystal Palace closed its doors at the end of 1851 (it ended up being rebuilt and sitting in a different part of London as a venue until the 1930s, when it was destroyed by a fire), Victoria wrote in her journal that “this great and bright time is past.” It really is—despite recent plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace in London, it looks like the days of the world’s greatest exhibition (and its most inspirational temporary structure) are done.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]