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Baby Powder: Killing You Softly?

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The Greeks used it to construct building materials. The Romans used it to clean up blood after gladiator contests. King Charlemagne is said to have sprinkled it in with egg whites to keep his hair stiff and glistening on the battlefield, a sort of ancient-school mousse. Yes, talc has been used in one way or another for centuries. Besides being the main ingredient in baby powder, these days talc can be found in everything from flea and tick powders to deodorants, chalk and crayons, soap, and circuit boards. It's used in home insulation material and as filler in paper. Ceramic tiles contain talc, as do paints and even some of that dust you find on certain sticks of chewing gum.

baby powderFor a mineral (pure talc is hydrous magnesium silicate) found in so many products, you'd think it would be as safe as salt. And generally it is. But guess what? Not only is the talc silicate related to deadly asbestos, some talcum powders are sometimes contaminated with asbestos. The result? Lots and lots of studies. The result of all the studies? Mixed.

However, in 1982, Johnson & Johnson admitted that they knew of some of these studies that concluded that woman who frequently applied talc products to their genitals had a three-fold increased risk of ovarian cancer.

(from August 12, 1982 New York Times article).

Talc2Other studies show that, since the 1980s, several thousand infants have died each year, or became seriously ill after accidentally inhaling baby powder. Many scientists have asked the Food and Drug Administration to require talc products to carry warning labels, something the FDA has yet to agree to. While other studies have not proven a link between talc and cancer, to play it safe, many people recommend using a mixture of cornstarch and baking soda as an alternative. Or get your hands on some natural baby powder in a health food store, usually made with things like green clay, tea tree oil and lavender or chamomile.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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