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The Weekend Links

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"¢ From Jan in Atlanta, the 25 Best Band Logos, and how they came to be. Some of them are incredibly iconic, and can probably be found being sported by your friendly neighborhood hippies and hipsters alike. Also, 50 Controversial Album Covers that you're not going to see ANYONE wearing. Be warned, some are not for the faint (feint? what's the rule on that?) of heart. And here's our own list of 23 Album Covers That Changed Everything.

"¢ Speaking of extreme looks and sounds, a dog who is a (rabid?) fan of death metal. His moves should be inspirational to moshers everywhere.

"¢ Here are 4 easy steps to avoiding cinematic tripe. The first one is my favorite, and oh-so-true. There are so many hours of my life I can never get back wasted on films not bad enough to be camp yet too terrible to ever be recommended.

"¢ Definitely frightening implications -- it's raining mud!

"¢ Speaking of wild weather, a tornado severely damaged downtown Atlanta last Friday (almost unheard of, a twister going through a metro area).

Here are more pictures of what looks like a war zone (through which I drive to work).

"¢ Has everyone filled out their brackets? This week, Slate.com served up some Haterade about those NCAA tourney teams you love to despise.

"¢ In the wake of the Eliot Spitzer scandal (and so many others), we need not debate the moral vacancy of many politicians. But what about just their crazy factor? From Cracked.com, 5 Certifiably Insane Politicians ... that people still voted for.

"¢ My friend Sarah sent me this video of a giant creepy animatronic dog robot. Her interpretation: "Terminator will soon exist!" Does it scare you as much as it scares me? Watch it right itself on slippery ice!

"¢ For more on-the-edge science, learn how nanotechnology works. As the site says, "Nanotechnology is so new, no one is really sure what will come of it. Even so, predictions range from the ability to reproduce things like diamonds and food to the world being devoured by self-replicating nanorobots."

"¢ A long but excellent article from The New York Times Magazine on the origins of morality. Includes some interesting moral dilemmas to test your friends with.

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"¢ There is an abandoned asylum on one of Emory's satellite campuses that gives me the serious willies, and is a favorite place for Halloween haunts. If that's your thing, you'll love these pictures of other wonders that have been left to dilapidate in a strange kind beauty. The list includes the Pabst Brewery and a children's asylum.

"¢ If you were a fan of the show that started the whole reality craze (from the network who gave us the unending drama of Heidi and Spencer), check out AOL.com's "Where Are The Now?" gallery of Real World stars (I have to thank Bill Simmons' links list for that one). For even more recent pictures of Real World-ers, go here.

"¢ Turns out, money CAN buy happiness ... just not in the way you might think.

"¢ Pajiba discusses "What's in a Ringtone?" Anyone care to share their own? You may remember the story about a ring that only teenagers can hear. Click the audio link to see if your hearing is on par.

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"¢ No doubt you all enjoyed the recent sharing of embarrassing childhood photos (pictured are floss contributors Jason Plautz and Brett Savage). Here are some from more famous faces ... but you probably wouldn't know that from looking at them (via GorillaMask).

"¢ Spring is here, and people are generally happy about its arrival. But The Dilettante offers up five things about this season's dark side.

"¢ Reader Meri offers us hours (or rather, minutes) of fun with 30 Second Bunny Theater. Her favorite is "March of the Penguins," but for all of them I couldn't help wishing they reenacted bulky literature as bunny-fied CliffsNotes. For more bunny parodies, here are some done with Peeps, from YesButNoButYes, Happy Easter!

Speaking of, all I want for Easter are some links! Send all submissions of internet fun and frivolity to FlossyLinks@gmail.com.

[Last Weekend's Links]

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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
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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
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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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