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The Weird Week ending January 18th

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Children Given Mercury as Toy; Hazmat Crew Responds

The Salinas, California hazardous materials response team was called in after a doctor had found the children in the home had high mercury levels. The health department red-tagged the home and relocated the family until the home can be professionally decontaminated. The source of the mercury? Their mother's boyfriend had given the children a jar of mercury as a gift about a month ago.

A Protest with Balls: Half a Million of Them125_balls.jpg

The famed Piazza de Spagna in Rome resembled a children's playground as a half-million brightly colored balls bounced down the steps and into the street on Wednesday. The display was a protest engineered by Graziano Cecchini, who last year had staged a protest by pouring red dye into the Trevi Fountain.

When Mr Cecchini finally appeared, walking down the steps with balls bouncing around him, he said he had done it to raise the profile of Burma and the Karen people.

The Karen are a minority who have fought for an independent state since 1949, and accuse the military junta of ethnic cleansing.

A city official said the stunt was "quite unacceptable."

The Blackest Black Yet

On Tuesday, a US research announced the production of the darkest material on Earth. The material is made from carbon nanotubes standing on end, so black it absorbs more than 99.9 percent of light. It is three times darker than the previous darkest material. The researchers are looking into seeking a Guiness World Record designation.

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Newsflash: Children Don't Like Clowns

A poll taken by the University of Sheffield confirms what many of us already knew: children don't like clowns. 250 hospital patients between the ages of 4 and 16 all expressed their dislike for clowns.

"As adults we make assumptions about what works for children," said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university.

"We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them quite frightening and unknowable."

Man Shows Up at His Own Funeral

24-year-old Oum Souv of Cambodia was thought to be dead after he was missing for two days -especially after an unclaimed decomposing body turned up in a nearby jungle. But Souv walked in during his own funeral service, just as the distraight family began to cremate the body! He had been drugged, beaten, and left for dead in a neighboring village.

140wineprices.jpgHigher Wine Prices Boost Drinking Pleasure

People enjoy expensive wine more than cheap wine, regardless of the actual quality. Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology gave the same wine samples labeled with different prices to 20 different people, while monitoring their brains. The subjects reported greater pleasure when told the wine was expensive, and their brains showed more activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, known as the brain's pleasure center. The part of the brain that registers taste was not effected.

Family Continues Road Trip After Grandma Dies

In a story reminiscent of the movie National Lampoon's Vacation, a family on a cross-country trip continued to their destination after their 79-year-old matriarch died of renal failure. The family was traveling from Oregon to Arkansas, and was in Wyoming when the death occurred on Friday or Saturday. Hillsboro (Oregon) Police Department Lt. Mike Rouches said, "They haven't broken any laws, as far as me or anybody else has been able to find."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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