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The Priceless Potty, the Jiffy Boob Job and the Squid/Octopus Hybrid

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The $19 million toilet

ISS_Toilet_2.jpgOkay, we never really expect the government to be too fiscally responsible, but it's still hard to fathom this. NASA announced last week that they're shelling out $19 million to buy a Russian toilet system to use in space. And that was a bargain. They explain that a toilet in space is like a water treatment plant on earth, so they saved big by buying the Russian model instead of building their own. The toilet, to be installed on the American side of the International Space Station, will look your standard airplane lavatory, except for the leg straps and thigh bar (see right). Plus, it's got the ability to transfer urine to a device that purifies drinking water. Even though the toilet does sound high-tech, it's sobering to think that for the same price NASA could have bought Curt Schilling and the cast of Friends.

Perfecting the Brewski

In a classic case of potential over-analyzation, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have revealed a procedure to use ultrasound equipment to test the quality of a fermented beverage. By strapping sensors to the outside of a container, they can bounce sound waves off of the particles in the brew to check for hung fermentation or bacteria. They haven't announced plans to market the equipment yet, but if it's available commercially, frat boys won't be able to get away with watering down their kegs anymore.

Even Rats Have a Golden Rule

Turns out calling someone a rat isn't as much of an insult as we always thought. Scientists showed that rats are actually pretty nice, especially when shown kindness. The rats were trained to pull a lever that fed food pellets to other rats. In turn, the rats receiving the food were more likely to pull the giving lever for other rats. Scientists are puzzled since this seems to run counter to evolutionary theory, but really it just shows that rats believe in karma as much as we do.

Tongue controlled wheelchairs, Really good vibrations and the Amazing Octosquid all after the jump!

The Tongue-Controlled Wheelchair:

KISS---Gene-Simmons--C11751295.jpegAdmit it: As an inexperienced prepubescent, you once practiced French kissing by yourself. Little did you know, that may have been practice for the future of transportation. The American company Think-a-Move has announced their development of an earplug that can detect movements of the tongue to control a wheelchair or computer. The movement in the tongue sends air through the Eustachian tube, which leads to the ear. Tests showed that the device has a 97 percent success rate with the commands for up, down, left and right. In addition to helping quadraplegics, the company says the device could be useful for soldiers and rescue workers. And Gene Simmons will just get a kick out of it.

The Amazing Octosquid

While cleaning the filters at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority water pipelines, scientists found a creature with the eight legs, the head of an octopus and the mantle of a squid. What to call this apparent hybrid-from-the-deep? Why, octosquid, of course! The specimen was about a foot long and doesn't appear to be of a known species. Octosquid is the temporary name until scientists can identify it further.

Pickin' up good vibrations

_42465828_power-sbeeby203.jpgScientists in Britain have developed a tiny generator that picks up its power from vibrations in its surroundings. They say the unique power system could be use in places where batteries are difficult to replace such as, say, a human heart. There are plans to use the device to power pacemakers since the vibrations from a beating heart would be enough to keep the generator going. I think if they could make the generator a little bigger, rock concerts might be able to power themselves.

Bigger Breasts in Just an Hour

From the land of 8-minute abs and 30-minute meals comes the 1-hour boob job. A California biotech company has announced a process, known as Celution, that takes just over an hour to enhance a patient's breasts. Using a minor liposuction, they draw fat from either the stomach or buttocks, then quickly remove the useful stem cells and inject the cells back into the patient's breasts, which gradually expand over six months. Sounds like becoming a pop star just became easier- you can process your headshots, burn a sample CD and get a bigger bra-size all in one afternoon.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]