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The New Issue is Out! (Plus, 5 Good Reasons to Pick it Up)

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The new mental_floss hits newsstands today, and we can't wait for you to check it out. If you're not a subscriber, we're providing a few choice tidbits after the jump to get you excited. (By the way, you can fix that by taking advantage of one of these subscription specials right here.)

Here are a just a few of things you'll learn inside:

1. Walruses are One Man Floating Bands!

When courting a lady, walruses aren't afraid of a little song and dance. In fact, a male will elaborately click, bark, and drum his flippers on his pharyngeal pouches—two air pockets on the sides of his throat—creating music so complex that it's been compared to the songs of humpback whales. On land, this pouch drumming isn't so impressive, but underwater, it sounds like chimes. In fact, when marine explorer Jacques Cousteau visited the Arctic in 1972, he dropped a microphone into the ocean and mistook the ringing for bells. In addition to making music and impressing French divers, pharyngeal pouches also serve as flotation devices, allowing walruses to comfortably float and sleep with their heads above water. They're like water-wings, except in your neck. -From the "I Am the Walrus" spread on p. 16

2. Thomas Edison was The Original Subway Hero

To understand why Thomas Edison is such a nerd hero, all you have to do is skim his patents. The man invented the lightbulb, the phonograph, electric railroads, underwater search lights, and more than 1,000 other important things. But none of that would have happened if Edison hadn't saved a child's life first.
In 1862, at the age of 15, Edison got his first job as a newspaper boy at a train station in Mount Clemens, Mich. One day, while hawking papers, Edison noticed a 3-year-old boy playing on the tracks, right in the path of a runaway freight car. Although the engineer had spotted the boy and was trying desperately to stop the car, he couldn't. The quick-thinking Edison jumped on the track, swooped up the boy in the nick of time, and then dove away from the speeding train. The action not only saved the boy's life, but it changed Edison's, as well. The boy's father happened to be the station's telegraph operator. He was so grateful to Edison that he took him under his wing and trained him in telegraphy, sparking the inventor's lifelong love affair with all things electric.
-From the "Real Americans: 13 Heroes Villains and Legends Who Defined the American Spirit" cover story, p 49

3. If Scooby Doo and Marmaduke are both Great Danes, why do they look so different?

The truth is that Scooby-Doo is a wonderful pet, and detective, but he could never win a traditional dog show. When veteran character designer Iwao Takamoto began designing Scooby, he researched the ideal characteristics of a Great Dane. Then, he gave his creation all the opposite traits—a sloping back, bowed legs, and an undershot jaw. The design served two purposes: Not only did it lend Scooby a comical, non-threatening look, but it also set him apart from the comic strip character Marmaduke, removing the threat of lawsuits.
-From "Scooby and the Gang", p 18

4. Ben Franklin Invented the Extension Arm?!

In his later years, Ben Franklin spent lots of time in libraries. And he invented stuff for them, too! To reach books on high shelves, he created a pole with a claw on one end and handles on the other. To this day, you can still see people using Franklin's extension arm at convenience stores and bodegas everywhere.
-From A Ridiculously Long and Incomplete List of Things that Ben Franklin Invented, p 46

5. The Man who Controlled A Bull's Mind with a Remote

In 1963, Dr. Jose Delgado stepped into a bullring in Cordova, Spain, with a 550-lb. charging bull named Lucero. The Yale University neurophysiologist was no bullfighter, but he had a plan: to control the bull's mind. Delgado was among a small group of researchers developing a new type of electroshock therapy. Here's how it worked: First, the researchers would implant tiny wires and electrodes into the skull. Then, they'd send electrical surges to different parts of the brain, sparking emotions and triggering movements in the body. The goal was to change the patient's mental state, perking up the depressed and calming the agitated. But Delgado took this science to a new level when he developed the "stimoceiver." The chip, which was about the size of a quarter, could be inserted inside a patient's head and operated by remote control. Delgado envisioned the technology eventually leading to a "psychocivilized society," in which everyone could temper their self-destructive tendencies at the press of a button.

For several years, Delgado experimented on monkeys and cats, making them yawn, fight, play, mate, and sleep—all by remote control. He was particularly interested in managing anger. In one experiment, he implanted a stimoceiver into a hostile monkey. Delgado gave the remote control to the monkey's cage mate, who quickly figured out that pressing the button calmed down his hotheaded friend.


To read the rest of this story (where the intrepid Delgado hops into the ring with a raging bull!) be sure to pick up a copy on newsstands. Or better yet, subscribe here. Of course, these 5 stories just scratch the surface. We've got 72 pages of incredible stories and facts, from the Unbelievable Story of the Brooklyn Bridge to a Slacker's Guide to Making Millions to why Mumbai is being hailed as the City of the Future.

Make our editors happy and pick up a copy today!

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]