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1 Small Step for a Squid, 1 Giant Leap for Biological Specimens

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In September, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C. opened the Sant Ocean Hall. The hall, restored during the largest renovation in the museum's history, is home to 12 exhibits featuring to 674 specimens and models.

squid.jpgPerhaps the most important specimens in the hall are two giant squid. The 24-foot, 330-pound female is the most intact giant squid specimen on display anywhere in the world. She, and a smaller male, were caught by a group of deep-sea fishermen off the coast of northern Spain in 1995 and loaned to the NMNH by Coordinadora para el Estudio y la Protección de las Especies Marinas, a Spanish marine preservation organization.

The organization was keeping the squid in 400 gallons of formalin, a preservative fluid that is considered hazardous cargo and can only be transported commercially in quantities of 16 gallons or less. To get the squid stateside, the museum called the Navy, who accepted the task (dubbed "Operation Calamari") and brought the squid home in a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane (pictured).

The Pickle of Pickling

In hindsight, getting the squid to the museum may have been the easy part. Preserving them posed an even bigger challenge.

There are some 1.5 billion biological specimens stored in institutions around the world (NMNH has about 124 million). "Wet" specimens, those that need to be stored in a preservative fluid, are usually (though not always) first fixed in a fixative solution, most commonly formaldehyde, which prevents the breakdown of proteins by forming chemical bonds and coagulating the contents of the specimen's cells into insoluble substances.

After fixing, a specimen is placed in a preservative fluid, which stabilizes it, prevents cell destruction and acts as its permanent home. The most common preservative fluids are alcohol (usually either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol), used since the 17th century, and formalin, a solution of formaldehyde diluted in water with some methyl alcohol added to prevent the formaldehyde from forming a solid mass, which was introduced in the 19th century.

Both of these preservatives present problems. Alcohol dehydrates specimens and leaches color from them, causing them to turn brown and then dirty white. Alcohol is also flammable; when Philadelphia's Mütter Museum was collecting specimens, one of the first donors insisted that his collection of fluid-preserved human organs needed be housed in a fireproof building. Formalin is better suited to preserve some specimens because of its fixative properties; it permeates a specimen's tissue and prevents it from decomposing. It's also less flammable than alcohol, but has a strong, unpleasant odor, is toxic and has been linked to certain types of cancer in animal tests.

Neither alcohol nor formalin retains specimens' true textures, and both preservatives allow specimens to move around in their containers, which can lead to breakages.

If you've seen more than a handful of fluid-preserved biological specimens, you know that some look much better than others. Somewhere, someone was doing something that preserved the specimen in excellent condition. Why don't all museums duplicate that technique for their collections? Unfortunately, in fluid preservation, most technique is the result of trial and error and records are rarely kept.

Where No Squid Has Gone Before

In addition to these challenges, Washington, D.C.'s fire marshal has significantly reduced the amount of flammable fluids that are allowed to be kept in public buildings since 9/11. The museum was authorized to use only 10 gallons of alcohol in the entire Sant Ocean Hall, while the female squid alone needed 1,200 gallons of fluid.

Formalin and alcohol were out, so the museum turned to Novec 7100 engineered fluid, developed by 3M, the diversified technology company. Novec, developed in the mid-1990s for cleaning electronics, isn't a preservative fluid, but a storage medium that forms a protective chemical envelope around specimens that have already been fixed in formalin. Novec is nonflammable, nontoxic and ozone-friendly. Its low water solubility keeps it from getting cloudy over time, and it doesn't drain color from specimens.

Novec has its share of problems, though. It evaporates easily, so specially designed jars with an extra-tight seal need to be used to contain specimens and the containers can't sit under lights that produce a lot of heat. Novec is also about 1.5 times denser than water, which means unrestrained specimens float to the top of their container, get exposed to air and decompose. Museum staff had to be careful to keep the squid submerged while also minimizing damage from any restraints they used. The squid are held down by a restraining bracket and reinforced with a metal screen, while broad transparent straps hold down the tentacles and distribute tension across them.

Novec's use in the squid exhibit is an ongoing experiment. For all their flaws, we know alcohol and formalin preserve specimens for a long time. No one knows how the squid will look in 20 or 30 years. Even while they're on display, the museum is taking samples of the squid's tissue and the storage fluid to see if the tissue is going through changes in cellular structure and if any compounds are leaching from the squid into the fluid. The museum is also breaking with preservation tradition by keeping meticulous records, starting with the squid's initial fixative injection in Spain and keeping pace with the tests they perform. The museum has said that every organization that donated specimens for the Sant Ocean Hall is eager to get plenty of data on Novec; if the squid are as intact a few decades down the line as they are now, Novec may become the fluid of choice for preservation. Here's lookin' at you, squid.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]