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Oliver Rich via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

8 Awesome Facts About the Catskills

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Oliver Rich via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The concrete jungle may be sprinkled with man-made parks and tree-lined streets, but the great outdoors? Not so much. Enter the Catskills, a mountainous region two hours north of Manhattan that boasts more than 6000 square miles of pristine, untouched nature. It’s the backdrop to Dirty Dancing, the nap site for Rip Van Winkle, and where more than 35 peaks rise above 3500 feet. As ski season kicks into high gear, we’ve compiled eight things you need to know about New York’s natural gem.

1. THERE ARE A LOT OF ANIMALS.

The Catskills are home to black bears, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, porcupines and (shudder) a variety of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. Black bears can be found on nearly every mountain in the Catskills region, which has the highest black bear population in New York State. Cougars and bobcats have been spotted much less frequently.

And the snakes? Well, they’re just about everywhere. The majority of poisonous snakes are found in Ulster County, and there’s a particularly large population at the summit of Overlook Mountain.

2. IT HAS NORTH AMERICA'S LARGEST ZIP LINE …

Located at Hunter Mountain, New York Zipline has the largest zip line canopy tour in North America. Their zip lines reach up to 650 feet long and 60 feet above the forest floor, and visitors can even enjoy a night zipping under the stars with their moonlight tours.

3. … AND THE WORLD'S LARGEST KALEIDOSCOPE.

The brainchild of '60s psychedelic artist Isaac Abrams and his son Raphael, a digital artist, the 60-foot-tall Kaatskill Kaleidoscope is the world’s largest, walk-through kaleidoscope. More than 20 people can fit inside the kaleidoscope—a former grain silo—for an energetic show of colors, music, and trippy images. As it goes with roadside stops, there are plenty of mini kaleidoscope souvenirs on your way out.

4. RIP VAN WINKLE SLEPT IT OFF HERE.

Washington Irving’s iconic story of Rip Van Winkle took place in the Catskills region. In the story, Van Winkle lived in the village of Catskill, which is where he took his notoriously long nap. Today, the legend of Rip Van Winkle continues to live on in the Catskills, with the Rip Van Winkle Wine and Cheese Festival in May, the Rip Van Winkle Golf Trail, and a statue of the beloved sleeper himself atop Hunter Mountain.

5. THE CATSKILL 3500 CLUB REQUIRES HIGH-PEAK CREDENTIALS.

The Catskills region has the perfect challenge for outdoor adventurers: the Catskill 3500 Club. Membership comes at a strenuous price—you have to climb all 35 of the Catskills’ peaks above 3500 feet—but the soreness and struggle come with some pretty immaculate views (and bragging rights).

6. MOUNTAIN STONE WAS USED IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF BIG APPLE ICONS.

While the Catskills are 100-some miles from New York City, they’re a foundational part of some of the Big Apple’s most iconic landmarks. Bluestone, an extremely hard, durable, fine-grained sandstone, is found throughout the region and was used in the construction of the Empire State Building and the base of the Statue of Liberty.

7. NOBODY PUT BABY IN A CORNER IN THE CATSKILLS. (THINK FURTHER SOUTH.)

When it comes to stellar entertainment, the Catskills—a.k.a. the Borscht Belt—had a storied history for many decades before Dirty Dancing, released in 1987 and set in 1963, revived its reputation. But it turns out that infamous summer at Kellerman’s didn’t happen in the Catskills at all. The actual movie shoot took place more than 500 miles south, in Pembroke, Virginia. Nonetheless, the movie helped elevate the profile of this beautiful region once again.

8. IT'S HOME TO A VARIETY OF BREWERIES, WINERIES, AND DISTILLERIES.

It’s easy to imbibe in the Catskills with breweries like the Catskill Brewery, wineries like Windham Vineyards, and spirits crafters Catskill Distilling Company, which is located right across from the farm where the infamous 1969 Woodstock music festival was held (in Bethel, not Woodstock, despite the name). The Catskills get extra hoppy in April when the annual TAP NY beer fest—the largest craft beer festival in New York—takes place at Hunter Mountain.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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