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The Stories Behind 11 Iconic Skyscrapers

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You may have snaked through a long line of fellow tourists to trek to the observation deck for a breathtaking view from the top of the city, but do you know the stories behind many of the world's most iconic skyscrapers? We've stacked up some of the details.

1. THE GHERKIN // LONDON

Known informally as "The Gherkin" for its pickle-esque shape, 30 St. Mary Axe was dreamt up after a 1992 explosion in London’s financial district destroyed the Baltic Exchange building. Plans for the original design—the much taller Millennium Tower—were scrapped for fears it could affect air traffic into the Heathrow Airport and the sight-lines of St. Paul’s Dome. It turns out that the pickled inspiration was a winner; when the cylindrical building opened in 2004, it gained quick notoriety, and was soon used as a symbol for London on bid posters for the 2012 Olympic Games.

2. WILLIS TOWER // CHICAGO

In 1969 the world’s largest retailer, Sears Roebuck and Company, decided they needed an office space for their roughly 350,000 employees. Four years, 2000 workers, and enough concrete to build an eight-lane, five-mile highway later, the 110-story Sears Tower was complete. (In 1988, Sears moved out of the building; 21 years later it was renamed the Willis Tower after global insurance broker Willis Group Holdings.) As a memorable finishing touch, 12,000 construction workers, Chicagoans, and Sears employees signed the building’s final beam.

3. BANK OF CHINA TOWER // HONG KONG

When famed Chinese architect I.M. Pei was tasked with designing this 70-story structure, he was dealt a number of challenges. He needed to craft a tall building (it stands at 1209 feet) in a typhoon zone and create a design that was pleasing to the Chinese people. His masterpiece—opened in 1990 after a five-year construction—is supported by five steel columns meant to resist high-velocity winds, and is inspired by bamboo shoots, which symbolize strength and prosperity.

4. CHRYSLER BUILDING // NEW YORK CITY

A mere 11 months after it gained the title of tallest building in the world in 1930—thanks to the last minute addition of a 186-foot spire—this art deco wonder surrendered its title to the Empire State Building. But it has long been known as one of the world’s prettiest structures. When automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler took over financing, he strove to add glamor to New York’s east side. The design already featured a multi-story section of glass corners and a stainless steel crown, but he requested the addition of eagle-esque gargoyles designed like the hood ornaments on his cars.

5. PETRONAS TWIN TOWERS // KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

The world’s tallest twin towers (88 floors each) were completed in 1996 after a three-year build. The steel-and-glass façade was created to reflect elements found in Islamic art, while the sky bridge—between the towers’ 41st and 42nd floors—was crafted with safety in mind. It’s not bolted to the main structure, but rather designed to be able to slide in and out of the buildings to keep it from snapping during high winds.

6. HOTEL & CASINO GRAND LISBOA // MACAU, CHINA

When crafting this 58-floor hotel and casino, the Hong Kong architects didn’t take any chances. The $385 million structure, which opened in 2008, was built to resemble a bottleneck—the idea being it would keep any cash from leaking out, according to feng shui. The outlandish exterior, meanwhile, was intended to look like a combination of crystals, fireworks and the plumes of a Brazilian headdress—all thought to symbolize prosperity.

7. EMPIRE STATE BUILDING // NEW YORK CITY

For four decades, the famed Manhattan skyscraper held tight to the distinction of being the world’s tallest. (It was eclipsed by the World Trade Center towers in 1972.) But the $41 million structure—featured in movies such as King Kong (1933) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993)—also scored another record: It was built in just one year and 45 days, the quickest for a building of its size. Each week, 3000 workers erected four-and-a-half new floors.

8. SHANGHAI WORLD FINANCE CENTER // PUDONG, SHANGHAI

This 101-floor behemoth was built to withstand destruction. There are fireproof floors, wind dampeners, and a glass skin to protect against lightning. (It can reportedly survive a magnitude 8 earthquake.) The building has also weathered adversity. Slated for construction in 1997, progress was delayed due to the Asian financial crisis before it was finally completed in 2008. And the initial design, which featured a circular opening at the top rather than the now rectangular one, had to be reconfigured when critics complained it too closely resembled the rising sun on the Japanese flag.

9. TAIPEI 101 // TAIPEI, TAIWAN

Fashioned to resemble a growing bamboo stalk—a Chinese sign of everlasting strength—this $1.8 billion building boasts two records. When it was opened in 2004 (construction took five years), it was the first skyscraper to surpass the half-kilometer mark. It also claims the title of fastest passenger elevator. After boarding on the fifth floor, riders reach the 89th floor observation deck in a speedy 37 seconds.

10. CN TOWER // TORONTO, CANADA

In a bid to demonstrate the strength of Canadian industry, railway company Canadian National set out to build the tallest tower in the world. For 40 months, 1537 workers toiled 24 hours a day, five days week, reaching completion in April 1975. (A 10-ton helicopter dubbed "Olga" was commissioned to bolt the 44 pieces of the antenna in place.) In 1995, the American Society of Civil Engineers deemed it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, but 15 years later, its height was surpassed by China’s Canton Tower.

11. BURJ KHALIFA // DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

At 2716 feet (more than twice the height of the Empire State Building!) and half a million tons, the gleaming desert structure holds a number of records. Among them: tallest building in the world and the tallest freestanding structure. The $1.5 billion, state-of-the-art mega skyscraper was designed by the same firm that dreamt up the Willis Tower and New York’s One World Trade Center, and it opened in 2010 after six years of work. The opening ceremony featured a light and water effects show and some 10,000 fireworks!

All images via iStock.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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