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The Disappearing Lake, Gecko Tape and the 5-Second Rule Debunked

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Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Lake: Scientists are on the hunt for a five-acre lake in the Andes (or not in the Andes, perhaps?) that's gone missing. The lake was last seen in March, but in May scientists only found a 100-foot crater with sheets of ice that originally used to float on the lake's surface. Some think the water from the lake may have leaked through cracks in the bottom of the lake into underground fissures, but they don't know where the fissures would have come from. My theory: David Copperfield. Just a hunch.

riverglow.jpgA Whole New Red Tide: It was 38 years ago this week that, in one of my city's proudest moments, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire, providing a startling visual reminder of how polluted the water had become. Now the WaterGlow project is giving us a more aesthetic and safe way to see how polluted our water is. Project creators Soo-in Yang and David Benjamin are installing pods in bodies of water to monitor how polluted the water is. The pods then signal LED lights to shine red if the water is unsafe or green if it checks out. The lights appear to float above the water and allow anyone to see how safe their H2O is. Not to burst their bubble, but I usually run when I see green water. Maybe that's just me, though.

Cow Dung alternative energy, reinventing the (intelligent) wheel, and how to walk on walls all after the jump!

More Fun Alternative Energy Sources: While the rest of the world works on generating energy from such drab sources like the sun and wind, some scientists are creating more innovative ways to power our lives. A few examples:
Cow Dung: Scientists are researching how to purify the methane gas present in cow excrement to turn feces into a feasible energy source. The theory simply proves that BS even has uses beyond writing papers.
Fruit: It turns out fuel made from fructose is actually better than fuel from ethanol.
Your Workout Routine: A gym in Hong Kong is placing generators in some of its machines, harnessing the power created when people worked out to power the fluorescent lights. It's only a little bit like being in a hamster wheel.

Reinventing the wheel: Speaking of wheels, it's not enough that cars can parallel park themselves now, butherbie.jpg a research team at University of Portsmouth in England is working on wheels that learn the routes you take and adapt to them. The microcomputers in each wheel communicate with each other and adapt to road conditions, tightening for familiar turns or adjusting the shocks for bumps in the road. The creators estimate that by 2012, a quarter of cars will be equipped with the technology. By my estimates, that means that by 2025, we can all be driving my dream car: Herbie.

Eat off the floor!: The 5-second rule, that old standby of nutrition, is off by at least five times, according to student researchers at Connecticut College. They tested a variety of foods to see how long it took for bacteria to infiltrate and found that wet foods took 30 seconds to attract bacteria, with dry foods taking even longer. Skittles are apparently a magical repellent, since it took at least five minutes for bacteria to show a bacterial presence. I'm still not sure this justifies me munching on the stray ones I just found under my bed, though.

Fighting Cancer, Fantastic Voyage-style: Chemo may be a thing of the past, as researchers have devised a new system of gold-coated glass nanospheres that can destroy tumors with bursts of heat. The nanospheres work like tiny Death Stars traveling through the blood stream and congregating near tumors. They then emit heat to destroy the tumors, reducing the time and toxicity of cancer treatments.
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Geckos do more than just hawk car insurance: By imitating the nano- and micro-scale structures on gecko's feet, scientists have created an adhesive that's strong enough to allow robots to walk on walls. The "gecko tape", which could also be used to create gloves for astronauts, is reusable because it doesn't use glues. Instead, the microtubes conform to the molecular gaps on a surface. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to hold off for a bite from a radioactive spider for my wall-climbing abilities.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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