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Health Cubby: iPhone App to Track Health Goals

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For the last month, I've been testing Health Cubby, a $9.99 iPhone app designed to track health and fitness goals. This is the first time I've used a computer program (much less an iPhone app) to track this kind of information, and I've been pleasantly surprised -- because I always have the iPhone with me, I find myself actually tracking my meals, weight, exercise, and various fitness goals. After a workout, there's a certain geeky fun in recording it in the app (a quick process) and watching my little "goal bars" fill in. Here are screenshots of a recent week with progress bars (left), and a list view of my cardio sessions (right):

Health Cubby screenshots

Health Cubby lets you track weekly goals, and you choose what's important to you. To get started, I set a modest goal of three cardio sessions and one strength-training session a week. The sessions are open-ended -- you can define how long each session is, and the app counts up your total time spent. Health Cubby also tracks vices, for those inevitable moments when you fall off the wagon and indulge yourself with food, alcohol, or whatever your particular vice may be (you can customize the vice list). I set myself a fairly liberal vice goal (up to four a week!), and have actually found myself checking my iPhone to see whether I have any "vice points" left for the week. Yes, this is nerdy. And yes, I actually think it's helpful. By tracking weight and measurements (so far I'm just doing weight), Health Cubby automatically generates graphs showing you weight over time. To get a graph, just turn the device sideways, and you get something like this:

Health Cubby - weight graph

Even more interesting, you can sync the data to a central server and export your data for use in Excel! So if you don't like the graphs you get from Health Cubby, you can take your data with you and make your own. (The app simply emails a CSV file of whatever data you search for...to export everything, run a search and leave the search field blank.) What's more, you can add friends to your Health Cubby network, and share results with them -- that way you can see when your buddy is losing more weight or working out harder. (You can also hide your actual weight from friends, instead showing just a weight loss percentage. This is a smart feature!) While I haven't tested the social features, they seem useful in concept.

Health Cubby also lets you track meals, taking a simplified approach -- you simply list what you ate, what type of meal it was (breakfast, lunch, etc.), and give it a "star rating" from one to five stars. I like this a lot, as it lets me define what a "five star meal" is to me. Obsessive calorie counters may not like this approach (as the app is NOT counting detailed calorie breakdowns), but personally I've never felt that detailed calorie counting was a great use of my time. I'd rather track general goals and attempt to do better, rather than break down everything by the numbers.

To get started with Health Cubby (without laying down ten bucks), try Health Cubby Lite, a free version that is limited to storing only 10 records. While the Lite version won't get you very far towards your fitness goals, it'll be clear whether you're willing to upgrade to the full version. Personally, I plan to keep using the app, as I've become sort of addicted -- every week I feel compelled to fill in my little cardio bar, not fill in my vice bar, and strive towards "five star meals."

To buy, click: Health Cubby: $9.99 on the iTunes Store. Health Cubby works on both the iPhone and iPod Touch. See also: more info on Health Cubby.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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