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Relief for Couch Potatoes, Canine Contraceptives and One Charmingly Alarming Solution

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Losing the remote is so last year with the new device that detects hand movements to control a television. Australian researchers have developed a box that can recognize seven different hand motions, from the thumbs up to an outstretched hand, to signal different commands for a television, DVD player or video recorder. The device supposedly works in any light and from a range of distances. Once the researchers get the box small enough to fit on a television, we'll finally be able to watch TV without all that hassle of actually lifting up a remote.

The iMartha

All those style-blind guys out there trying to match ties and shirts have help on the way. HP has announced a research project that would allow people to use their camera-phone to match colors. After sending a picture of themselves or an object they want to match, users will receive a text message a few minutes later with color recommendations. The pictures are processed and analyzed pixel-by-pixel for color value, erasing the effects of bad lighting. HP officials say the new tool will help women trying to buy makeup, but I can guarantee I'll use it almost every day to figure out what color shirt I should wear with my jeans.

Insert Tiger Woods pun here
caddyshack12.jpgMembership at your country club might get a little less exclusive if a team of American scientists has their way. They're advocating that golf courses be used as animal sanctuaries, since 70 percent of the well-manicured land isn't even used for playing. The greens are ideal places for animals, since they can be altered to mimic natural habitats and would be protected. On the other hand, this idea opens the door to all kinds of Caddyshack gopher-style animal hijinx.

PLUS: An Argentinian Snowfall, An Alarmingly Good Idea and Confidence via FDA-approved Nose Candy after the jump.

Snow in Buenos Aires?!
I'll admit, after living my entire life up north where winters are cold and snow is common, I can't empathize with people who joyfully greet every flurry by trying to have a snowball fight. But even my heart was warmed by the story of Buenos Aires getting its first taste of snow in almost 90 years. There have been cold temperatures plaguing Argentina since May, but a moisture-laden system moving in caused the snowfall on Argentina's Independence Day, the city's first since 1918. Sure, the story is dampened by the 23 deaths from exposure to cold, the energy crisis that has hit the country in light of the cool temperatures and the knowledge that this is just more evidence of how screwy our weather system has become, but the thought of Argentine children making snow angels is too much to not be happy.

nasal spray.jpgBoost Your Confidence, Via Nose
We've all been told that the best way to get over a fear of public speaking is to imagine everyone in their underwear. Apparently, the second-best way is a confidence-boosting nasal spray. Australian researchers developed the spray, which releases oxytocin into the bloodstream. In tests of 70 men and women, the drug was shown to reduce shyness in stressful social situations. Following large-scale tests, the spray should be commercially available in five years, so shy guys will finally have the courage to talk to girls at the bar after putting a little something up their nose. Sounds like a totally novel idea that will do great in the 1980s.

Neuter no more
Until now, dog birth control has been pretty one-sided; it's either neuter or nothing. But now an Australian company has unveiled a contraceptive implant for use in male dogs that will curb testosterone for months at a time, leaving a less permanent and relatively more comfortable alternative. The implant controls the hormone linked to testosterone production, not only killing the dog's sex drive, but also relaxing his aggressive behavior. Dogs aren't quite out of the water yet; the company still urges neutering as the best option if the owners don't want any breeding.

Picture 13.pngIsn't it time you gave her a ring?
Don't worry, I'm not talking about proposing. Since I reward myself for enduring the obnoxious buzz of my alarm clock with five more minutes of sleep, I think I might be in line for this sleek alarm from Yanko Design. The alarm is actually a ring that can be programmed to vibrate at a certain time. The vibrations of the ring then awake you in a manner slightly less jarring than the blaring horn of most clocks. This innovative alarm is especially useful for the hearing-impaired and couples waking up at different times.

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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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