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Wikimedia // Public domain

The Famous Composer Who Was Obsessed With Trains

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Wikimedia // Public domain

The words "Antonin Dvořák” are often followed by phrases like “New World Symphony” or “folk music meets classical Romanticism.” But when the Czech composer wasn’t at his piano or conducting a symphony in Prague, he was often doing something quite different: obsessing over trains.

Born in Bohemia on September 8, 1841, Dvořák came of age alongside the railroads that changed life in Europe forever. As a child in Nelahozeves, a village between Prague and Dresden, the arrival of the railroad that connected the two cities also changed his life. Workers from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire made their way to the village during its construction, and the young boy watched soldiers and celebrities fly by on the trains, pulled by newly constructed steam locomotives, from a house across the street from the train station.

The train may have ended his town’s sleepy way of life, but it also inspired the young musician with a love for technology and progress. Eventually he followed the train to Prague and, as a young and increasingly famous composer, crisscrossed Europe on steam trains. His home base of Prague was a rail hub and the site of not one but two impressive train stations. Dvořák, who lived within walking distance of the Franz Josef I station, spent much of his spare time there, befriending railroad workers and reportedly escaping boring concerts to watch international express trains depart and arrive. He became obsessed with the arrivals and departures of the trains, memorizing their extensive schedules and becoming a bona fide trainspotter.

Dvořák’s obsession even showed up in his personal life: At one point, he asked a student who was dating his daughter to note the number on an international express train, then jokingly told his daughter he would forbid her to marry him because he botched the task. And when he visited the United States, he continued his trainspotting [PDF], though Grand Central Station apparently disappointed him due to its lack of opportunities to watch trains pass one another. His love of trains was so great that he once declared: “I would give all my symphonies for inventing the locomotive.”

You’d think that someone so into trains might have made more train-like music, but it’s hard to find locomotive influences in Dvořák’s folk-inspired songs. That’s not to say he didn’t find inspiration near the tracks: At one point, the composer was waiting for a festival train at the Prague station when he came up with the theme for the opening movement of his Seventh Symphony. And weirdly enough, his “Humoresque” was used as the background to a popular joke song in the 20th century that transposed potty humor about train toilets over the classic melody. It’s even said that trains eventually killed him—while standing at the Prague train station during a trainspotting trip, the composer caught a chill. He died soon thereafter.

Trains fascinated Dvořák so much that he rearranged trips to see them and begged acquaintances to describe their rail journeys to him. But why? He himself told a student that he loved the ingenuity with which each train was built. “It consists of many parts created by many different components,” he said. “Everything has a purpose and role and the result is amazing.” Kind of like a symphony.

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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]