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What would happen if you ate one of those silica gel packets?

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Well, for one thing, you'd be eating a misnomer. Silica gel isn't actually a gel, but a granular form of silicon dioxide (SiO2), a compound formed when silicon is oxidized.  Silica gel is synthetic but SiO2 is also commonly found in nature (I trust you've heard of sand and quartz.)


But before we discuss the consequences of ingestion, here's a quick history lesson. Silica gel has been around since at least the 1600s, but was a scientific curiosity until its absorbent properties were put to use during World War I in gas mask canisters. Walter Patrick, a chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University, patented silica gel in 1919 and joined with Grace Davison, a Maryland-based chemical company, to further develop it. Davison began selling silica gel in 1923 but it didn't take off until World War II.

Silica gel can absorb a lot of water—about a third of its weight—without undergoing a chemical reaction or changing shape. Even when they're saturated, the granules stay dry to the touch and can be reused after heating at 250 °F for two hours. These properties make silica gel extremely useful for controlling moisture and humidity, and during the war it was used to keep medicine, military equipment and supplies dry.

Today it's packaged with leather products, pepperoni, electronics and vitamin pills and used in museums and libraries to guard against rust, corrosion, tarnishing, mildew, mold and spoilage.

Risk Assessment

So what happens if you decide to defy the warning on the packet, defy the social norms of polite society and munch on a few granules? I hate to be anti-climactic, but most likely, the answer is "¦nothing! (Of course, there are some caveats, which we'll get to in a minute.)

If you think about it, silica gel is basically man-made sand. It's non-toxic and chemically non-reactive. People who have eaten anywhere from a few beads to a whole packet have reported no ill effects. If you're curious, it's reportedly almost tasteless, like licking a postage stamp.

Why the Skull & Crossbones?

Why the warnings, then? Well, silica gel isn't completely dangerous, but it isn't completely safe. Here are a few reasons the packets come with stern warnings:

Dehydration "“ Silica gel's job is to absorb moisture, and it's going to keep doing that as you digest it. You'd have to eat an awful lot of it to dehydrate yourself, but if you did, it would dry you out in no time.

Silicosis "“ This lung disease, also called Grinder's disease and Potter's rot, is caused by inhaling silica dust and causes symptoms like scarring and nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs, shortness of breath, fever, and cyanosis (blue tinted skin).

Foreign vapors and toxic additives "“ You don't know what the silica gel was exposed to between Point A and Point B. Eating a packet that came in a box of cockroach traps is definitely not recommended, but the gel could have absorbed other nasty stuff during manufacture or shipping and absorbed it. Sometimes, these things are added intentionally and packaged silica gel might have a bit of fungicide or pesticide added to it.

Another additive to watch out for is cobalt(II) chloride, which is toxic. This is added to the gel when a visible indication of absorption is needed. The cobalt(II) chloride makes the granules blue when they're dry and turn pink when they're saturated.

And the biggest reason? Lawsuits! "“ Even if the contents of a packet are plain old silica gel with no cobalt(II) chloride, and there's no silica dust present and there aren't enough granules to cause dehydration, companies have been sued over far stupider things. They're just covering their butts.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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