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Meet Dr. Ecstasy

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At the turn of the last century, there were only two psychedelic compounds known to man: cannabis and mescaline (which is what makes peyote so popular with shamans and hippies). By the 1950s, scientists had developed or uncovered LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms") and about 15 more compounds you've probably never heard of. These days, we're well into the hundreds, thanks in large part to the work of an organic chemist named Dr. Alexander Shulgin and many years' worth of experimentation (much of it on himself) in a tiny lab in his backyard in Northern California. (Pictured above: Shulgin and his wife, Ann.)

Shulgin is responsible for at least 200 psychedelic compounds (which weren't illegal when he created them, simply because the DEA hadn't yet heard of them), is the author of a pair of memoir/cookbooks called PHiKAL and TiHKAL, short for "Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved" and "Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved," respectively. But he is certainly most famous for reintroducing the world to a little-known compound called MDMA in 1976. It had been patented by Merck in 1914, but thinking it useless, the drug giant had never done anything with it. Shulgin resynthesized it, wrote a paper about it in which he noted ''an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones," and the world had Ecstasy.

You might wonder why Shulgin was never arrested. From the 50s through the 80s, he had the full support of the DEA -- the DEA's chief was even married in Shulgin's backyard -- and frequently gave pharmacology lectures to DEA agents. He had a DEA-issued Schedule I research license. That is, until he published PHiKAL in 1993, which the agency -- deeply engaged in its now-controversial "war on drugs" -- didn't look kindly upon. The agency turned his back on him, raided his lab and yanked his license. (He's still allowed to work in his lab creating new things -- he just can't make or possess anything that's currently on the DEA's list of Schedule I drugs, which is most of his life's work.)

Shlugin views himself as a scientist in the most classical sense: his goal has been the identification and classification of a whole range of brain-altering compounds previously unknown to humankind -- much like a naturalist might name and describe new species of butterflies he discovers. Reading through the various effects of his discoveries is a bit like reading through a catalog of the many switches in your brain that can be flipped, to various effects. From the New York Times Magazine:

[Shulgin discovered] stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs, ''empathogens,'' convulsants, drugs that alter hearing, drugs that slow one's sense of time, drugs that speed it up, drugs that trigger violent outbursts, drugs that deaden emotion -- in short, a veritable lexicon of tactile and emotional experience. .... A compound he dubbed Aleph-1 gave him ''one of the most delicious blends of inflation, paranoia and selfishness that I have ever experienced.'' Another, Ariadne, was patented and tested under the name Dimoxamine as a drug for ''restoring motivation in senile geriatric patients.'' Still another, DIPT, created no visual hallucinations but distorted the user's sense of pitch.

Why did Shulgin choose such an unorthodox field of research? He describes a revelatory experience with mescaline in 1960, after which he realized that everything he saw and thought ''had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained within the white solid. . . . I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.''

Here's a video of "Dr. Ecstacy," talking science in his backyard lab:

Note! Mental_floss recommends flossing your brain with trivia, not illegal Schedule-I drug compounds.

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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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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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