CLOSE
Original image

7 Creative Uses for Poop

Original image

As long as the animal kingdom exists, we'll have a steady supply of digestive byproducts, whether you call it dung, manure, sewage, feces, or poop. We may as well use it for something! Oh sure, you know about fertilizer, but there are plenty of other ways we reuse "biological waste."

1. Paper

Poop is composed largely of indigestible fiber, which helps to keep an animal's system clean and running smoothly—as anyone who's dealt with constipation has learned. These fibers are now being made into fine stationery. In Thailand, elephant patties are collected, cleaned, spun, dyed, and dried to make paper that is sold mainly to raise funds for elephant preservation projects and sanctuaries and to support zoos. China followed suit and is producing Panda Poo Paper.

2. Cure

550camelapples

When the German army occupied northern Africa during World War II, many soldiers suffered terribly from dysentery, but residents of the area seemed to take it in stride. The Germans found that as soon as the first symptoms of dysentery were noticed, the locals followed a camel and collected its poop as soon as it dropped. Then they ate it. It cured the dysentery, but only if it was fresh. The secret was the beneficial bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) in the camel dung, which aided digestion and crowded out disease bacteria. You can imagine the horror of the fastidious Germans when they discovered what the cure was. Still, it was better than dying. The German medical corps found a way to isolate the bacteria for the ailing soldiers. Keep reading, the story gets better. Image by Flickr user Vít Hassan.

3. Camouflage

550germantank

Camel "apples" became a good luck charm for the German military. The Allies discovered their habit of intentionally running tanks over piles of the droppings for good luck. So the Allies developed and planted land mines that looked like camel dung! When the Germans caught on to the trick, they began to avoid fresh piles of camel manure. In turn, the Allies caught on and began to make mines that looked like camel dung that had already been run over by a tank and therefore seemed safe enough to a Nazi driver. Genius.

4. Coffee

400civet

The most expensive coffee in the world comes from poop. The Asian Palm Civet is a small animal that loves to eat coffee cherries, if it is lucky enough to live on the Indonesian islands where coffee is grown. The cherries only partially digest and are excreted fairly intact. The poop is gathered and washed, and the coffee beans are sold as Kopi Luwak, which can cost hundreds of dollars per pound. The partial digestion process is supposed to add a wonderful flavor to the coffee. Kopi Luwak is also produced in the Philippines and in East Timor. Image by Wie146.

5. Gunpowder

550guanomining

Guano is the polite word for sea bird droppings, and also refers to bat and seal waste. The term came into use in South America to refer to mineral deposits mined from islands off the Peruvian coast. Guano is full of nitrogen, particularly potassium nitrate used for gunpowder, and phosphorus used for fertilizer. Lack of predators allowed birds to poop on these islands for thousands of years, and the lack of rainfall preserved the guano, leaving dried deposits up to 150 feet deep! The War of the Pacific was fought partially over guano mining rights. Chile, Bolivia and Peru all wanted to exploit the minerals of the Atacama Desert on the west coast of South America, which included saltpeter for explosives and guano for fertilizer and gunpowder.

6. Clean Water

550_llamas

A side effect of tin and silver mining in Bolivia is the acid water laden with dissolved metal that leaches from the mines. The toxic runoff pollutes water as it drains away, killing algae and fish. What to do? One method of cleaning the water is to introduce bacteria that process sulfates in the water, essentially binding the dissolved metals into iron sulfide, zinc sulfide, etc. so that the metals drop to the bottom of the water. This bacteria is introduced by adding llama dung to water treatment lagoons and wetlands, a method developed in Britain using cow and horse manure. Image by Flickr user Jessie Reeder.

7. Energy

550_manurepile

Humans have fueled their fires with animal dung since fire was invented, but now this energy source is beginning to be harvested on a large scale. It just makes sense, as huge industrial feedlots produce tons of the stuff. Solid manure can be burned, and liquid manure produces biogas, which is about 60% methane, or natural gas. Projects are underway to tap sources of chicken manure for electrical energy, cow manure to heat homes, and pig manure to fuel up cars. Image by Flickr user NIOSH.

twitterbanner.jpg

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES