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How To: Be An Astronaut

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Take Your Aspirin
Here's the secret they don't tell you about space travel: It hurts. Spacesickness is common, particularly for first-timers and anybody who launches into a bunch of fancy spins or soaring across the station before they've had time to get acclimatized. And trust us, hurling in zero-G is no fun. Worse, the effects of weightlessness can really do a number on your body. One symptom is lower back pain, caused by your spine stretching as the fluid within it floats. You get taller, but you also get achier. Headaches are another major issue. Without gravity, it's harder for your heart to do its job. Blood pressure drops and your blood doesn't reach your feet as reliably. Instead, it flows to your head, turning your face puffy and red and giving you a headache, just as if you'd been hanging upside down on the monkeybars.

Embrace Grubbiness
Hygiene is, shall we say, "difficult" in zero gravity. Baths are a laugh and showers non-existent—the water would just ball up and float away. Instead, each person on the International Space Station is rationed one pre-moistened wet towel, a couple of dry towels, and several wet-wipes each day. These invaluable supplies are used to give yourself what basically amounts to a sponge bath. As for hair, well, there's a reason most astronauts keep their locks short. Space shampoo is dry and rinsing it out of your hair means carefully gathering a ball of floating water around your head inside a plastic bag.

Drink Your Friend's Sweat
Water is a precious commodity on the International Space Station and every drop is recycled via the Station's water conduction unit. And when we say every drop, we mean "every" drop. When astronauts are done exercising each day, they leave their damp towels to float around the station, where the sweat can evaporate, be collected by the conduction unit, and turned into drinking water.

Learn A New Language
With missions stretching as long as six months at a time, astronauts on the International Space Station learn a lot about each other, including how to speak in their partners' native language. In fact, most veteran American astronauts can speak Russian and most veteran cosmonauts can speak English.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell
That's the official NASA stance on whether anyone's ever had sex in space. We may never know for certain whether astronauts and/or their international peers are hooking it up up there, but we do know that, if they were, it would come with some less-than-sexy challenges. For one thing, there's no natural convection in zero gravity, so any heat you work up stays with you. At the same time, however, you also tend to sweat more in zero G, making outer space sex both hotter and wetter than that on Earth—and not in a good way. Another problem is that, in zero G, you naturally push away from anything you touch. That means anybody wanting to have sex in space would probably need to be strapped down and strapped together. Oh, and that drop in blood pressure we already mentioned? That would have dire effects on male "egos" galaxy wide.

Enjoy a Drink, If You Are Russian
Alcohol—in small, non-mission-threatening quantities—was always welcome in the old Soviet space station Mir (natch). But, when the Ruskies joined the crew of the International Space Station they found that American prudery reigned supreme over the heavens. From it's opening in 2000, the ISS was, officially, dry. This sort of thing was not acceptable to the cosmonauts and in January of 2006, they managed to talk Russian mission control into changing their rules. Good cognac—to be drunk by the thimbleful, as alcohol packs a bigger wallop in zero-G—returned to Russian supply kits, to, we presume, great fanfare. Americans, however, had no such luck. Officially, they're supposed to just watch in jealous sobriety when their Russian pals break out the drink.

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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
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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
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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