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Peanut Butter Diamonds, Air-Conditioned Shirts and On-Demand Amnesia

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Tiffany's? More like Jif-any's!: Researchers at Edinburgh University have created a way to make diamonds out of most carbon-based materials, including peanut butter. They create an oddly-named "stiletto heel effect" by squeezing material between the tips of two diamonds, creating pressure greater than at the center of the earth. Besides making diamonds out of sandwich dressings, the scientists also say they could turn oxygen into red crystals. Kind of makes me wish I had held out for more than a cupcake when trading away my peanut butter sandwiches in the lunch room.

Forgive and Forget: The next time you want to forget something, you won't need a bottle of tequila. Scientists at McGill University in Montreal and at Harvard have devised a method to erase or manipulate memories. By injecting a drug known to cause memory problems while a patient is recalling a specific memory, the scientists were able to disrupt the biochemical pathways that make the memory permanent. The scientists say it has already helped lessen the symptoms in victims of PTSD. As of yet, it doesn't appear to have been used Charlie Kaufman style, but there's still time.


One Mammoth Discovery: In another case of life imitating awesome science-fiction movies, National Geographic reports that researchers are close to piecing together the genomes for extinct species like Neanderthals or mammoths. Once the genome is completed, many think that we could be close to reviving the ancient species. It's a matter of getting the DNA from these species, whether it's from fossils or frozen bodies. It makes me wonder if resurrected Neanderthals will be anything like those GEICO cavemen.
teeth.jpgBuilding a better mouth-trap: Dental materials can be hard to test, since long-term teeth models work quickly and hardly mimic the real human mouth. But researchers in England are working on a better dental robot. The device, known as Dento-Munch, can rotate on three axes, better showing the versatility of the mouth to test the effects on long-term wear on dental products. I'm sure its only a matter of time before Wrigley's gets their hands on it to develop a longer-lasting chewing gum.

Give 'em a Hand: More artificial body parts: A Japanese firm last week unveiled an artificial hand with a more sensitive touch. The prototype weighs only 14 ounces (about three ounces less than a human hand) and uses air pressure to control the movements of the fingers. The hand is so delicate that it can pick up a pen and a raw egg without breaking it, a big step up from the heavier models.

acshirt.jpgIt's like Sleeping on Air (Conditioning): In my dorm room, I had to struggle to coordinate three fans around the room to maximize the air cooling me while I slept. If only I had had Kuchofuku's new air conditioned bed. The bed uses two fans to circulate air under you while you sleep, creating an air conditioning system. As if that weren't enough, they're also selling a shirt that uses similar technology, so you can feel cool at the office. I'm sure its comfortable, but the giant fan on the side doesn't exactly scream high fashion.

Heard it through the Grapevine: We've all heard of the supposed "Mozart Effect," but who new it worked at vineyards? One researcher has applied that logic to plants, and found that classical music helps grapevines grow. The full results aren't in, but leaf area and growth were improved in plants exposed to music. The tests were all conducted in Tuscany on vines that produce Chianti, making this the swankiest research project I've ever heard of.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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