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Bee Karaoke, Green Blood, and why Global Warming is causing kittens!

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Holy Alternative Energy Sources!: According to the BBC, Pope Benedict XVI is on his way to becoming the most eco-friendly pope ever by replacing the roof of the Paul VI auditorium with solar cells. The cement roof was due to be replaced next year anyway, but His Holiness took a tip from above and elected to go the green route. Amazingly, the cells will generate enough power to light, heat or cool the auditorium and will hopefully start a country-wide trend. No word yet on whether plans are in place to replace the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

floating light bulb.jpg The Incredible Floating Lamp: Last week, Ransom posted about the wireless light bulb. Well, Jeff Lieberman managed to one-up that not only by removing the wires, but also the effect of gravity! By using electromagnets, Lieberman (or the David Blaine of Inventors, as I like to think of him) was able to suspend a wireless light bulb more than 2 inches away from a surface. If only they could make it float a little higher from the surface I could solve the overhead lighting problem in my apartment .

It's not easy bleedin' green:
It sounds like something out of an episode of House...if it was some bizarre crossover with Star Trek. When operating on a patient in Vancouver, doctors were surprised that the man's blood was a dark greenish-black. The doctors pinned the cause of the Vulcan-like blood on sulfhaemoglobinaemia (say it five times fast), a condition that can result when sulfur atoms are introduced. They say it was likely cause by the medication he was taking for frequent migraines. The good news is that the condition is usually self-correcting with red-blood cell turnover, though he may need a transfusion. Anybody want to volunteer for that procedure?

Environmentally charged felines, insect karaoke and self-fixing windshields, all after the jump.

Who knew Global Warming was so Cute?

cute kitten.jpg It's a good thing Bob Barker retired from The Price is Right, because he'll have his animal-neutering hands full with this new global warming theory. Pets Across America, an animal adoption group, has reported a 30 percent spike in its intake of cats and kittens and says other groups have reported the a similar trend. They blame the increased kitten population on global warming. Since cats mate in the warm weather, the short winters mean that the felines have longer to breed, which means more kittens. Now if only we can prove that water pollution is creating more puppies, maybe we can stop this whole "Save the Earth" fad in its tracks.

Never worry about a cracked windshield again: Coolest character on Heroes? Claire. She can heal herself, whether its a splinter or a bullet wound. It's incredible. But she's not so unique now that researchers at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana have designed a new regenerating polymer. The material can fill in any cracks in its outer layer by rushing a polymer epoxy from "blood vessels" inside. That amounts to the plastic being able to heal itself several times over by itself. It could revolutionize the material used in building airplanes, medical implants and microprocessors. If anything, though, they should use it in windshields- parents of little leaguers the world over would be pleased.

dead bee cropped.jpg Could bee karaoke save our food supply? Colony Collapse Disorder is the new Potato Famine. It's been killing entire colonies of bees, which means they can't pollinate the fruits and vegetables in our diet. Fortunately, Jerry Bromenshenk, an entomologist at the University of Montana, has come up with a solution. Like dogs or blind people, bees have a heightened sense of smell and will change the sound they produce when they detect a new chemical substance. So Bromenshenk is putting tiny microphones in bee colonies to detect the changes and rescue the bees. Presumably he's also listening to find the next Colony Idol.

The (enormous) fungus among us: Everyone knows that the biggest mammal is the blue whale, which can be up to 110 feet long. Unbelievably, that's like a flea to the world's largest living organism, a fungus in Oregon that covers 2,200 acres. Put in perspective, that's just about 1,600 football fields, which is roughly nine times what NFL career rushing leader Emmit Smith traversed in his career! The Armillaria ostoyae is largely underground and spends its days killing trees in the Blue Mountains. The U.S. Forest Service has decided just to let it be, resigned to the fact that there's no way to stop it. By some estimates, it's lived 8,000 years; there's no reason we'd be able to kill it now.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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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