CLOSE
Original image

4 Ways to Become a Diabolical Genius from the Comfort of Your Home

Original image

If your name is Angus MacGyver, all you need to lay waste to life's obstacles—from hotwiring a moped to breaking out of a heavily guarded Soviet prison—is a tube sock, a jar of mayonnaise, and a roll of duct tape. If you're anyone else, you'll probably need this guide. But don't push your luck. Being a diabolical genius is not for the faint of heart. So unless you're willing to be maimed, arraigned, and shipped off to Gitmo, we suggest you don't try this at home.

1. Pick your teeth, pick a lock

If you consistently find yourself locked out of your house, and you're fanatical about dental hygiene, today is your lucky day. Meet the Oral-B Hummingbird. It flosses, it gyrates, it messages your gums. But most importantly, it can easily be converted into a remarkably effective, motorized lock-pick. With minimal effort, and a few dollars worth of supplies, a converted Hummingbird will pick just about any padlock in seconds.

First, you'll need to dissect the Hummingbird. Break open the casing and swap out the AAA battery for a beefy 9-volt by melting a small hole in the bottom of battery shell. Next, lace the wires to the battery terminals, cut the tip off of your store-bought lock pick, and superglue it to the Hummingbird. Easy as pie.

So next time your dentist tells you that you need a root canal, don't get a second opinion, just break into the office at night and swap out your dental records. Not only will you avoid painful, costly oral surgery, but after the medical malpractice lawsuit, you can just let your teeth rot and buy some shiny new dentures.

[Learn more at InventGeek.com]

2. Make free phone calls

evanpost2.jpg

Tired of paying for long distance? No worries. Just buy a box of Cap'n Crunch.

Believe it or not, in the early 1970s, that would have been an acceptable answer. That's because, beginning in the mid-60s, Cap'n Crunch cereal came with a small plastic whistle that was easily modified to emit a tone at 2600 hertz—the exact frequency used by AT&T to indicate an available trunk line to route a new long distance phone call.

John Draper, a Vietnam War veteran, and lifetime "phreaker", discovered the secret of the toy whistle with longtime friend Joe Engressia in 1971. Phreaking—a portmanteau of the words "phone" and "freak"—was a relatively new field at the time, and Draper and Engressia were on the cutting edge. By blowing the whistle, Draper, who later came to be known in phreaking circles by the pseudonyms Captain Crunch and Crunchman, was able disconnect one end of the trunk, allowing the end that was still connected to enter operator mode, thus circumventing the automated billing system. Through further experimentation, Draper was able to build a blue box, a small electronic device capable of reproducing many other tones used by the phone company.

Before long, Draper became a household name. In 1971 an article in Esquire, "The Secrets of the Little Blue Box," detailed his phreaking exploits. The article also brought him to the attention of Steve Wozniak, who, along with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, did a little phreaking of their own under Draper's tutelage.

But all good things must come to an end. In 1972 Draper was arrested on toll fraud charges and sentenced to five years probation. Which just goes to show, if you play with little plastic whistles, eventually, you're gonna get burned.

[Learn more at JetCityOrange.com]

3. Blow up your kitchen

drano.jpg

If you're an aspiring chemist (or current pyromaniac) this one's for you. One would assume creating a volatile, highly flammable gas would, at very least, require a fully stocked laboratory and a PhD. In fact, it requires a bottle of Drano, some aluminum foil, and a glass bottle.

First, take a sheet of aluminum foil and stuff it into the bottom of a bottle. If you're really particular about your diabolical experiments, tear the aluminum foil into small pieces instead of crumpling it. This creates more surface area, which speeds up the reaction. Simply pour the Drano over the chards of foil, and voila, hydrogen gas will begin to form.

The chemical reaction at hand is actually quite simple. Drano acts as a reducing agent. It's primarily sodium hydroxide. Aluminum is the oxidizing agent. The protective aluminum oxide coating on the foil is dissolved by the sodium hydroxide forming a complex ion:

Al2O3 + 2NaOH + 3H2O "¡ 2Na+ + 2 [Al(OH)4]-

The exposed aluminum surface then reacts with water to form hydrogen:

2 Al + 6 H2O "¡ 2 Al(OH)3 + 3H2

You can capture the gas by sliding a balloon over the mouth of the bottle—think of it like a poor man's Hindenburg. Just remember, an enormous amount of heat is generated during the reaction, so you'll want to have a container of cool water on hand to neutralize the temperature (and probably an ambulance, too, just to be safe.)

[Learn more at ScienceDemonstrations.com; Image courtesy of Governing.com]

4. Hallucinate

evanpost3b.jpg
If you're bent on hallucinating this holiday season, but you can't bring yourself to approach smelly Phish fans, look no further than your local garden supply store. For just a few dollars you can pick up a packet of morning glory seeds, and learn why the term "flower power" isn't exclusive to hippies and anti-war protesters.

The morning glory flower, true to its name, blooms early in the morning, and dies quietly when the sun goes down. It's known for its colorful funnel-shaped flowers, heart-shaped leaves, and its tiny black seeds, which, when ingested, elicit a mild hallucinogenic experience. Scientifically, this comes as no surprise. The active ingredient in the morning glory is d-lysergic acid amide, known commonly as LSA. It's a chemical cousin of d-lysergic acid diethylamide, Sgt. Pepper's favorite—LSD. Scientists estimate LSA is roughly 5 to 10 percent as potent as LSD, so you'll probably need to scarf down a solid handful.

Aztec priests have used morning glory seeds for millennia in religious ceremonies to communicate with the gods, predict the future, and alleviate fear amongst the soon-to-be-sacrificed. It's a veritable wonder drug! If you're worried about jail time, well, you should be. The chemical ergine (contained in many species of morning glory) is illegal to posses in its purist form; however, the seeds are readily available in many gardening stores. So now you know why Martha Stewart is terminally happy.

[Learn more at Elephantos.com]

Evan Schiller is an occasional contributor to mental_floss, and the sole proprietor of Conventional Stupidity. His last article featured crazy Facebook groups.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES