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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

New York City's Other Subway

Original image
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For many, the story of subterranean travel in New York begins in October 27, 1904, when the first underground line of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company began to operate from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. But in reality, underground transit in New York began 34 years earlier—in a stranger-than-fiction saga that involves a secret dig, a massive success, and unheard-of political corruption.

The year was 1869, and a man named Alfred Ely Beach had a big idea. At the time, Beach was best known as the publisher of Scientific American, which he purchased from its founder with a friend just 10 months after it was first printed. (Beach was also known for running a school for freedmen after the Civil War and patenting an early typewriter.)

Like most New Yorkers before and since, Beach hated the city’s notorious traffic. The streets were crowded with horses, carts, and hordes of frustrated people, including the inventor. Beach was familiar with London’s new Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground subway system. But building the subway had been a huge investment of time and a gigantic disruption of the city—not exactly something that seemed viable for cash-strapped New York.

This directly conflicted with Beach’s grand vision, which involved the relatively new concept of pneumatic tubes. The idea was already being used to push capsules containing letters at the London Stock Exchange, and Beach wanted to turn the technology into a game changer for New York. He became a bona fide pneumatic tube pusher, proposing their use for businesses in New York and, eventually, public transit. The idea was almost deceptively simple. “A tube, a car, a revolving fan!” he wrote breathlessly. “Little more is required.” 

Soon Beach was convinced that pneumatic tubes were the solution for New York’s traffic problem. But Boss Tweed, the head of the political machine that was the city’s Tammany Hall, disagreed. When Beach applied for a permit, Tweed turned it down (likely because he was involved in building an above-ground transit system—and collecting huge amounts of graft in the process). So Beach did what any intrepid inventor would do: He got permits to build pneumatic mail tubes instead, then set about building a full-blown demonstration subway under the guise of a piddly mail delivery project. 

Fifty-eight days after construction began, Beach’s secret tunnel was ready to unveil to the public. It was only about a block long, but it was long enough. It also almost unleashed a public firestorm when newspapers claimed that the pneumatic tube people were causing Broadway to sink. Beach created a distraction and avoided a PR catastrophe by holding a star-studded reception underground. He entertained guests in an elaborate waiting room complete with a fountain filled with goldfish, chandeliers and a grand piano, then whisked passengers about 300 feet on a subway car. 

It was nothing less than a sensation. Not only did Beach collect 25-cent fares from over 400,000 passengers in the first year, but he demonstrated that it was possible to move passengers safely beneath the city. Beach’s next step was to try to extend the line, but political interference from Tweed and other legislators and waning public interest sucked the life out of the plan like, well, a pneumatic fan in the years that followed. (Read Joseph Brennan’s epic account of the ins and outs of the political drama and technical challenges of the system here.) 

Though Beach’s vision of a pneumatic underground subway system never went further than a few hundred feet, another one of his concepts lasted much longer. Beach himself didn’t build the underground pneumatic mail system [PDF] that ran beneath the city from 1897 to 1953, but he surely helped inspire it.

The Beach Pneumatic Station was soon forgotten and periodically rediscovered, then annihilated when the City Hall subway station was built in 1912. The system’s closed car and tunnel shield were initially preserved, but have since been lost. How would New York transit look today if his idea hadn't flopped? We'll never know—but it's fun to dream about an alternative timeline filled with Beach's underground, undercover pneumatic trains.

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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
Original image
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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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