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5 Innovative Ways to Encourage Safer Sex

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Most people know that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STI). But in many parts of the world, condoms aren't very popular. Here are five novel campaigns launched by nonprofit organizations and condom companies to encourage wider use.

1. A ring tone to remember

In India, people stigmatize condoms and refuse to wear them because they believe only prostitutes must use prophylactics. Leave it one of the world's richest men to find a solution—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated money for a national condom ring tone. An a cappella group sings "Condom, Condom"—in the style of doo-wop like the contagious pop song "Barbara Ann"—when one receives a phone call. Despite its bubblegum sound, officials hope that the people who have the condom ring tone appear smart and responsible. Since the ring tone's August launch, more than 60,000 people downloaded it. Yvonne MacPherson, country director of the BBC World Service Trust (which the Gates foundation funded), sums it up best when she said to the Associated Press: "A ring tone is a very public thing. It's a way to show you are a condom user and you don't have any issues with it." Right, nothing attracts the amorous attention like announcing loudly that you have a condom.

2. Perks you right up

macchiato.jpgEthiopians claim they hate condoms because the smell of latex sickens them. To combat the odor, DKT International, a United Sates nonprofit, created coffee condoms. These dark brown condoms allegedly (I'm not testing the products) taste and smell like the favorite coffee of Ethiopia—the macchiato, an espresso with cream and sugar. One college student claimed the smell reminded him of the beauty of Ethiopian women (it's not clear if that's a compliment). These condoms bolster national identity because Ethiopians claim to have invented coffee. DKT International also created flavored and scented condoms for Indonesia (durian fruit) and China (sweet corn).

3. Condom trees

oak-tree.jpgIn western Australia, the rate of HIV infection and STI is the highest in the nation. When public health nurses were looking for an effective way to distribute condoms, someone suggested trees. Young people in the countryside hang out under trees, making it the perfect place for nurses to hang condom-filled canisters. Over 3,000 condoms are taken each month. Residents said grabbing condoms from trees was convenient and private. Additionally, officials in Australia piloted programs where Aboriginal teens sold packets of condoms and kept half of the proceeds. Official tout these programs as a success because STI rates have lowered, yet nurses wonder how they will convince people that they shouldn't have multiple partners. Maybe a monogamy tree is in the outback's future.

4. Scare tactics

skeletons.jpgPerhaps some safe sex programs skirt the issue—unprotected sex causes HIV, which leads to AIDS and often death. It's not surprising that a condom company would resort to scare tactics. The Tulipan Company launched its "Be Careful" ads in Argentina. Showing skeletons positioned in flagrante delicto, these ads make no bones about how important it is to wear a condom while engaging in coitus (see the campaign here). No word if the skeleton ads have had the desired impact, though the graphic skeletons appear more popular than recent Trojan ads, which depict men as swine.

5. Spray-on protection

spray_on.jpgSince his teens, Jan Vinzenz Krause struggled to find a condom that fit correctly. He thought the pursuit of the perfect prophylactic was hopeless—until he went to the carwash. Inspired by the spray-on soap and wax, the German Krause developed a spray-on latex condom, which he claims always fits perfectly and feels natural. However, many men find the design off-putting; the spray-on condom comes in a hard phallic case. Men slide themselves into the cylinder and layer on the latex, providing full coverage. The Jolly Joe, as Krause dubbed it, frightened many men during the testing phase—they only put the case on their fingers. (Spray on gloves anyone?) Others felt the loud hissing wasn't sexy and the latex takes too long to dry—three minutes. Krause explains to Time, "It needs to be ready in five to ten seconds." So for now, Krause is waiting for a quicker-drying latex.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]