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Chocolate Toothpaste, Paper-thin Batteries and the Resurgence of the Dodo (the bird, not your neighbor)?

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A Toothpaste Cathy Would Love

Picture 21.pngI didn't think it could get any better than the day my dental hygienist told me that beer cleaned teeth (a fact I've never bothered to verify because I just don't want it to be wrong). But now it turns out that chocolate may be the best ingredient to add to toothpaste. A doctoral candidate at Tulane University has shown that cocoa extract is more effective at fighting cavities than fluoride, having done animal tests and developed a peppermint toothpaste with cocoa instead of fluoride. It could be another 2-4 years before the chocolate toothpaste is commercially available, and until then you should probably just stick to regular, foul-tasting paste; something tells me brushing with Hershey's and gargling with Yoo-hoo wasn't what he had in mind

Madly in Love

say anything.jpgWe've all heard that love makes us do crazy things, but we never realized how true that actually was. A scientist in Switzerland surveyed a group of adolescents and found that those who claimed to be in love actually exhibited signs of hypomania, a mild form of bipolar disorder. For example, the love-struck teens needed one hour less of sleep every night than their counterparts and were also twice as likely to say they had creative energy. The researchers concluded that adolescent love is a "psychopathologically prominent stage," and that psychologists should take this into account when treating teens. Anyone looking to study this subject more should look into the collected works of John Hughes.

Paper-thin Batteries

PaperBattery.jpgBatteries almost always make devices twice as heavy as they need to be. However, a group of scientists from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and MIT have created a new technique of creating batteries that results in paper-thin power cells. The process is mighty complex, but the crux of it is in carbon nanotubes. As of now, the batteries are pretty weak, but they are able to fit in unusual shapes and could be made bigger and better. If they get more powerful, just imagine how thin cell-phones can be.

MORE: Astronaut Stress Tests, life-extending wines and Dodos (who're squawking not to call it a comeback), all after the break!

Use Fossil Fuels, Save the Earth

Yes, you read that headline correctly. As strange as it seems, some scientists around the world are presenting evidence that using biofuels won't do a whole lot to save the environment. A representative of the International Energy Agency says that creating biofuels will require cutting down forests to grow more corn, so, in the end, the net carbon reduction will be negligent. Scientists at the University of Leeds in Britain agree, saying that we wouldn't see any different for 50-100 years, which is far too long to wait. Instead, they are arguing that governments focus on replanting forests and making fossil fuels more efficient.

Space-age Stress Balls

Since no one can hear you scream in space, it must be difficult to figure out how stressed people are. And unlike in the easy-going world I live in, where I can easily go back and edit out stress-induced errors, stress for astronauts can cause costly and life-threatening problems (see: Mir Space Station). That's why NASA has designed a handheld device with a three-minute test to alert astronauts when they're too stressed to perform tasks.. The psychomotor vigilance task tests how quickly the subject can react to a flashing light to test sleep deprivation and mental fatigue. It will replace the ten-minute, multi-part test that includes pattern matching and repeating numbers that, while it sounds more fun, hasn't been effectively validated.

Dodo's Making a Comeback

dodo.jpgThe dodo was a flightless bird that laid its eggs on the ground and went extinct 400 years ago. But now we have a chance at studying its DNA, thanks to a discovery on an island off of Africa. Scientists looking for cave cockroaches stumbled upon a skeleton of a dodo that had been preserved nicely because of the environment in the cave. The discoverers theorize that the dodo, which they have christened "Fred," ended up in the cave because it had been trying to escape a storm and fell down a hole. If my wildest dreams come true, that means we could soon have a lame, dodo-filled version of Jurassic Park, which will assuredly make a less exciting movie.

Is the Fountain of Youth filled with Red Wine?

A professor at Harvard is purporting to be a modern-day Ponce de Leon with his research in resveratrol, a chemical he says can slow aging. David Sinclair says that resveratrol, which is found in red wine, extended the life span of mice by 24 percent and other animals by 59 percent. There's an understandable amount of skepticism around his research, but Sinclair says he believes the chemical could work on humans and has gathered a good deal of funding. Even though the research sounds exciting, I can't help but feel shades of the immensely unsettling Tuck Everlasting.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]