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Magazine Sneak Peek: Sharkskin Catheters and How We're Going to Save Children

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5days.gifIt's bad enough that humans have spent centuries using animals to feed and clothe us. But now, we're stealing their ideas, too? In the latest issue of mental_floss, we explore the amazing world of biomimetics to show how whales are solving the energy crisis, sharks are making our hospitals safer, and so much more. Here are just 2 of our favorites:

Sharkskin—The Latest Craze in Catheters

Hospitals are constantly worried about germs. No matter how often doctors and nurses wash their hands, they inadvertently spread bacteria and viruses from one patient to the next. In fact, as many as 100,000 Americans die each year from infections they pick up in hospitals. Sharks, however, have managed to stay squeaky clean for more than 100 million years. And now, thanks to them, infections may go the way of the dinosaur.   

Unlike other large marine creatures, sharks don't collect slime, algae, or barnacles on their bodies. That phenomenon intrigued engineer Tony Brennan, who was trying to design a better barnacle-preventative coating for Navy ships when he learned about it in 2003. Investigating the skin further, he discovered that a shark's entire body is covered in miniature, bumpy scales, like a carpet of tiny teeth. Algae and barnacles can't grasp hold, and for that matter, neither can troublesome bacteria such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus.

Brennan's research inspired a company called Sharklet, which began exploring how to use the sharkshin concept to make a coating that repels germs. Today, the firm produces a sharkskin-inspired plastic wrap that's currently being tested on hospital surfaces that get touched the most (light switches, monitors, handles). So far, it seems to be successfully fending off germs. The company already has even bigger plans; Sharklet's next project is to create a plastic wrap that covers another common source of infections—the catheter.

Playing Dead, Saving Lives

When the going gets tough, the tough play dead. That's the motto of two of nature's most durable creatures—the resurrection plant and the water bear. Together, their amazing biochemical tricks may show scientists how to save millions of lives in the developing world.

Resurrection plants refer to a group of desert mosses that shrivel up during dry spells and appear dead for years, or even decades. But once it rains, the plants become lush and green again, as if nothing happened. The water bear has a similar trick for playing dead. The microscopic animal can essentially shut down and, during that time, endure some of the most brutal environments known to man. It can survive temperatures near absolute zero and above 300ËšF, go a decade without water, withstand 1,000 times more radiation than any other animal on Earth, and even stay alive in the vacuum of space. Under normal circumstances, the water bear looks like a sleeping bag with chubby legs, but when it encounters extreme conditions, the bag shrivels up. If conditions go back to normal, the little fellow only needs a little water to become itself again.

The secret to the survival of both organisms is intense hibernation. They replace all of the water in their bodies with a sugar that hardens into glass. The result is a state of suspended animation. And while the process won't work to preserve people (replacing the water in our blood with sugar would kill us), it does work to preserve vaccines.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million children die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Because vaccines hold living materials that die quickly in tropical heat, transporting them safely to those in need can be difficult. That's why a British company has taken a page from water bears and resurrection plants. They've created a sugar preservative that hardens the living material inside vaccines into microscopic glass beads, allowing the vaccines to last for more than a week in sweltering climates.
Curious what the other 8 technologies stolen from the animal kingdom that we featured? Then pick up the new issue of mental_floss magazine here. Or take advantage of our best offer and get a t-shirt with your subscription for just a couple of dollars more. 

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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