Original image
Muzeo // Public Domain

Why Is This Little-Known American Parachutist Famous in Estonia?

Original image
Muzeo // Public Domain

What’s a modern, abstract sculpture in honor of an obscure American balloonist doing in the capital of Estonia? Good question. The man in question was named Charles Leroux, and though you probably have no idea who he was, he once found fame in the U.S. and abroad demonstrating something that seems commonplace today: parachutes.

Leroux was rumored to be the grandson or great-nephew of Abraham Lincoln (he wasn’t). He wasn’t even named Leroux—his birth name was reportedly the rather more prosaic Joseph Johnson. He appears to have been born in Connecticut in the 1850s. At some point, Leroux must have realized that it would be more profitable and exotic to take on a French-sounding name—especially because he adopted a French-seeming sport that had been making waves worldwide since the late 1700s.

By the time Leroux started tinkering with parachutes and balloons around the 1880s, the French were the undisputed kings of aviation. From the Montgolfier brothers, who invented the first hot air balloon anyone could actually use, to Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who managed to cross the English channel by balloon in 1785, the French had pioneered early flight.

Parachutes, though, were another story. Leonardo da Vinci designed an early prototype, but it took until the early 20th century for the modern version to get a patent. Meanwhile, parachuting was anyone’s game—and, like balloons before it, it was a game for daring showmen.

With a spiffy new name and an apparent daredevil streak, Leroux began to test a parachute of his own design. He was already an accomplished East Coast trapeze artist and gymnast, and he designed a breathtaking parachute to top off his performances. In 1886, for example, he shut down traffic in Philadelphia (performing as “Prof. Charles Leroux”) by climbing 100 feet up the Dime Museum, clad in “light blue silk tights and satin trunks.” Before a packed and terrified audience, he jumped off of the building holding a 16-foot-wide parachute and nearly running into a lamp post (a nearby man wasn’t so lucky—Leroux ran right into him instead). The New York Times report of his feat notes that it was Leroux’s 38th ascent, and that his other accomplishments included jumping off of New York’s High Bridge.

The monument to Charles Leroux in Tallinn, Estonia. Image credit: John Menard via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

That was just one of Leroux’s leaps. His feats took him all over the world. In 1889, for example, he demonstrated the parachute he had designed—complete with backpack-style straps—to a group of impressed German officers. (Given that he jumped 1000 meters from a balloon, the equivalent of about 3280 feet, they had reason to be dazzled.) And in 1887, Leroux lent his design to Charles Broadwick, who would become one of the most famous parachutists of all time.

But eventually, Leroux’s derring-do got the best of him. On September 24, 1889, he braved a difficult jump from an airborne hot air balloon in front of an audience of onlookers in Tallinn, Estonia, which was then called Reval. An errant wind swept him away toward the Baltic. A woman supposedly died of heart failure just watching the tragedy. Leroux died, too—his body was recovered by fishermen two days later. Today, a modernist monument in his honor stands in Tallinn, a strange and little-known testament to a man who managed to withstand 238 jumps before his untimely death—and whose daredevil acts with a parachute helped inspire interest in more modern versions of the lifesaving invention.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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!

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

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]