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The MythBusters Answer Your Questions!

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It's here -- the mental_floss interview with the MythBusters, featuring your questions! (Also here: a new season of the show, starting tonight: Wednesday, October 6! Set your DVRs -- the new season premieres at 9pm. Also check out Kari Byron's new show Head Rush, a commercial-free hour of experiments on the Science Channel every weekday at 4pm.)

For this interview, I combed through over a hundred viewer questions. I selected the best, threw in a few of my own for good measure, and sent them off to Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, and Kari Byron. Below are the questions (in red) and their answers. Read to the end to see if your question made the cut!

mental_floss reader Robert C. asks: Would you ever consider asking the crew of the International Space Station for help busting a myth? Are there any myths they could help with?

Adam: "I would LOVE love love LOVE to get the ISS's help with a myth. If they're game, we're game, we've got a crapload of stuff they could do for us. Let me just find my list... (squee!)"

Jamie: "That's a good idea. We sure would, if the need came up."

Kari: "Of course we would. Space is our final frontier."

mental_floss reader Jamie asks: Questions for Kari, did you experience any long term after effects after the Chinese water torture episode? Also, did you have that microchip removed from your arm or are you still "tagged"? And one comment, way to go working through your whole pregnancy! You go girl!

Kari: "Chinese Water Torture was a terrible idea for a myth. Anything where the best case scenario is torture should be given a second thought. I don't have any long term effects from that experiment but I would never do it again.

"I just recently had the chip taken out of my arm. I am no longer 'tagged'.


mental_floss reader CJ the Curious Diver asks: We all have seen what becomes of the gadgets and rigs created to bust myths. Pieces get reused (sometimes a sword-swinging robot is rebuilt to throw things and later is reincarnated as a sword-swinging robot), but what happens to all the little, i.e. not valuable, bits?

Adam: "I save them. Anything burnt, broken, cool. I am the unofficial archivist of MythBusters esoterica. I've even created shadow boxes that i hang around the shop to display some of my favorite stuff."

Kari: "They are in boxes and shelved. Our shop is starting to look like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You never know when the little bits could be very valuable."

E.g. when you float a sunken boat using ping pong balls (and pure awesomeness), what happens to the ping-pong balls afterward? When you truck in huge quantities of dirt for a ramp, does the proverbial dirt shop accept returns?

Adam: "We kept a huge amount of them [ping-pong balls] stored on the roof. Many got moldy. We donated most to charity (the James Randi Educational Foundation) and we gave some to a burlesque show. Because they asked. I still have some in storage. See [my answer about esoterica, above] as to why."

(Optional "Columbo-style" addendum: By the way, how much do bulk ping-pong balls cost, and wouldn't MythBusters detritus make for cool conversation-starting souvenirs? ;)

Adam: "This was a huge issue. We needed potentially 50-75k of them and they're not cheap. One of our researchers found a Japanese avalanche researcher who was willing to give us 200k for the cost of shipping to the US, but the shipping cost was prohibitive. Eventually we made a deal with a ping pong ball company and they gave us a discount."

Kari: "They were put in garbage bags and stored on our roof. That is until a huge windstorm blew the bags open. We thought it was hailing but the hail was bouncing. Sometimes we live in our own sit com. After a lengthy clean up, the balls went to a good home."

Many of our readers (LainTexas, Barb, Jessica, and Bicycle Bill) are curious about the role of off-air workers in setting up myths, rigs, and so on. Can you talk about the role of the team you work with, outside of the on-air personalities?

Adam: "We have an amazing team in San Francisco, about 24 people make the show including the hosts. We have an amazing director in the form of the inimitable Alice Dallow, and we're all supported by a 3 person research team that finds us the locations, expertise and weird objects we need to experiment with. The other team, Kari, Grant and Tory has the same. We also have a couple of shop people who do some of the behind the scenes welding, assembly etc, though we still build a surprising amount of our rigs without help."

Jamie: "The key creatives on the show are Adam and I and our producer/directors. Otherwise we rely on a team of several researchers for materials and background information, setting up locations and resources and the like. Then we have a couple of shop guys/builders that help us if we have work done that does not need to be on camera. Otherwise there are runners, coordinators and so on. Relative to most productions we run very lean, and there are about 4 people other than Adam and I who work very closely together to do the heavy lifting as far as generating content on the show."

Kari: "We always have expert advisors to keep us safe and make sure our science is accurate. As far as the builds, up until recently, we did 100% of the building for our machines and experiments. With our aggressive production schedule and ambitious set of myths, we have brought in a couple of off air workers to get the bigger projects done."

Several mental_floss readers (Gina and Matt) ask how you get IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval to do your experiments involving people? I assume you can avoid US government IRB approval because your experiments aren't funded by the FDA or HHS, but I wonder whether you have any sort of third-party oversight of your experiments on people? (For readers unfamiliar with IRBs: in the US, the FDA and HHS have IRBs that oversee publicly funded research on human subjects.)

Jamie: "We haven't involved the IRB as far as I am aware, and the experiments on people other than ourselves have been very limited and non invasive."

Adam: "Actually, when we've worked with Universities on things where we're testing ourselves, we've had to fill out many forms to make it clear that we're NOT doing officially sanctioned experiments. Specifically because they'd get into trouble for doing so if what we were representing was that we were doing real science."

Kari: "The production company takes care of all that."

mental_floss reader ChrisH (no relation) asks: Jamie once said, "So far our neighbors think it cool being next to the MythBusters. That can change." Has the situation changed?

Jamie: "Yes, we have a second shop or other locations we go to if there is something problematic. We are regularly using hundreds of pounds of high explosives, weapons, high pressure systems under stress and so on -- we just go away from the shop if there is anything that seems questionable."

Adam: "Our neighbors love us. We're pretty respectful, we let them know when we're about to make a loud bang, a bad smell etc. We know what side our bread is buttered on..."

Kari: "Our neighbors continue to be very tolerant."

mental_floss reader Mary A. Milan asks: My son Matthew, who [turned] 8 on 9/25, asks: Why do so many of your experiments have to do with blowing up stuff? Can you [get the network to] have a marathon of all your blowing up stuff shows? He would be over the moon if you answered his question; he and his 12 year old sister are huge fans. I have to keep "MythBusters" on the DVR.

Adam: "Well Matthew, it seems people like to watch things blow up. If that's what it takes to trick them into watching a science show, and potentially learning something, then we're willing to take one for the team."

Jamie: "We just kind of got into the habit of using explosives, and everybody seems to like it. I have to say that I don't like being casual about them -- even if we do have fun with explosives there are a lot of people who are killed every year by explosives and it's not funny at all. But used the way we do, where nobody gets hurt, there are some exciting things we have done which would indeed make a great special."

Kari: "I believe the Top 25 special has a montage of our best explosions. Is there a better way to end a myth?"

mental_floss reader Mark asks: Are there any myths/episodes that you regret, and for what reason? I keep thinking of the one where you guys fire paint ball pellets at each other to see who quits first.

Jamie: "I'm more thinking of things like mind control or pyramid power -- the supernatural is not something testable and doesn't fall within our interest."

Adam: "I don't regret the Ultimate Mythbuster Challenge. I regret that we ever went near Pyramid Power. It's what we'd now call a "woo woo" myth. Full of total malarky and in science parlance "Not Even Wrong". Sorry about that."

Kari: "I don't do regret. Besides, we revisit anything that needs more exploring."

mental_floss reader dtphoto asks: Can there be a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy themed episode? (iPhone+wikipedia for all--knowing device, Towel usage fails, etc.)

Adam: "I love this idea! Any excuse to read the books again, listen to the BBC radio show again, see the movie again. I'm a huge Douglas Adams fan and I think you might have something there."

Jamie: "That is a great idea. I'd like to do that."

Kari: "I will suggest it. :)"

In the "Goldfish Memory" myth, it was mentioned that Jamie used to run an aquarium shop. As a former aquarium nerd myself, I want to hear more about this ---- do you still keep an aquarium? If so, what species of fish do you prefer? I'm guessing you're a cichlid or discus man. Eh?

Jamie: "I don't keep aquariums anymore. It's kind of like having a farm -- the animals have to be fed, cleaned, looked after. No vacation, you can't just take off and go someplace without looking after the pets. That said, my favorites are in fact goldfish. They don't require a heater, they are colorful and can have distinct personalities. If you are an enthusiast, you can get all sorts of exotic hybrids with bug eyes, vivid colors and so on. Just a few of those are just as visually interesting as dozens of smaller tropical fish and they are easier to take care of."

Tim Hunkin's "Secret Life of Machines" has a lot of parallels with the MythBusters ---- it's about two guys building/taking apart machines and explaining how scientific principles work (and many episode end with some kind of mechanical sculpture and/or fiery explosion). Was SLOM an inspiration for MythBusters, and have you ever met Tim Hunkin or Rex Garrod?

Adam: "I've never seen SLOM, though I now want to."

Jamie: "I'm not sure, but I believe the producer who had the idea to do the show originally was very familiar with it. I have never met either of them."

Kari: "I don't think it was the inspiration for MythBusters but I do know the show's creator was an avid [fan]. I have never met them but I am sure they would fit in nicely around here."

[Editor's note: "The Secret Life of Machines" is a TV show well worth watching -- and you can actually watch it online for free thanks to the Exploratorium.]

A huge number of readers asked if you're hiring. Got any advice for aspiring MythBusters?

Adam: "Turnover on our crew is very low. We've been doing this show now for the better part of a decade and we're all like family now. But you never know: get yourself through engineering school and learn to weld and we might have a need for you one day."

Kari: "Nope, I don't think any of us are abandoning our current careers. Host of MythBusters isn't a high turnover job."

Jamie: "Not at the moment. Be curious."

That's All, Folks

There you have it. Tune in tonight at 9pm for some brand new mythbusting. Here's a clip from tonight's episode ("Hair of the Dog") to whet your appetite:

Many thanks to Adam, Jamie, and Kari for taking time out of their schedules to talk to us -- and to our readers for submitting such awesome questions!

(Images courtesy of Discovery Channel.)

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.