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Wearing Light

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Last night, talk show host Conan O'Brien revealed his holiday decorations (which includes Godzilla, King Kong, and the Christmas UFO) while wearing a Santa Claus beard composed of tree lights. He also sported a fiber optic topknot on his lighted hat.

The costume was over the top, but it wasn't exactly a breakthrough in illuminated clothing. Strings of Christmas tree lights have adorned tacky sweaters for years. More and more, designers are working with advanced technology like knitted and woven fiber optics, LEDs, and chemicals to make wearing light simpler.

This Illuminated Wedding Dress by Enlighted features 300 LEDs scattered along the skirt that flicker randomly. The effect differs according to the ambient lighting: the skirt is subtle in a well-lit room and dramatic when the room lights are turned down. The lights are turned on by remote control.

The Galaxy Dress from Cute Circuit is embedded with 24,000 LEDs embroidered onto the surface of the fabric. The LEDs are just two millimeters wide, and are powered by several iPod batteries distributed around the dress.

The Italian company Luminex developed a way of weaving fiber optic thread into more familiar fabrics. The result is a flexible fabric that glows evenly with the power of a cell phone battery. The Luminex dress you see here can glow in five different colors.

The Luminex formal gown is impressive. The company also makes casual clothing, as well as furniture fabric, linens, and industrial products.

The Twirkle line from Cute Circuit offers dresses and men and women's t-shirts in several patterns. The patterns contains LEDs that run on small coin batteries and are controlled by your movements!

Mary Huang designed a line of LED dresses called Rhyme and Reason. Her focus was to hide the LEDS in the fabric in order to create a glow without the appearance of individual lights. Each dress is made to order.

Erogear offers wearable LED displays on a jacket, which comes with an 8-bit processor, software, and a built-in USB port so you can program your own video display! The size, shape, and specifications of the display are customized for the buyer. The video features 256 levels of grayscale and runs at 30 frames per second.

LEDWear offers heavy-duty lighted clothing specifically for the night time safety of workers, pedestrians, and bike riders. LEDs are embedded in a jacket, backpack, and bike helmet.

From Charlie Bucket of Casual Profanity ("a series of ridiculous clothing experiments"), here's a dress illuminated with liquid. It was knitted by machine from 600 feet of plastic tubing, which was then pumped full of luminescent chemicals. The project was a hit a Maker Faire and won an award from Vimeo, but there are no plans to mass market it -since the attached pump makes wearing it a bit problematical.

If you'd like to wear light but are a bit shy about going whole hog, you can start with illuminated shoelaces by Laser Laces. These combine LEDs and fiber optics to add light to any shoes that use laces. Be warned that they will highlight your dance steps, for better or worse.

The new movie Tron: Legacy has inspired a new generation of light fashions. Syuzi Pakhchyan made this awesome Quorra costume from the movie for Halloween, using EL (electro luminescent) strips and imitation leather.

Tron-inspired shoes from designer Edmundo Castillo use LEDs for illumination. I wonder why they were photographed with the power plug showing. Surely there is room for batteries in those heels! Any way, these will be available at Sak's Fifth Avenue in February.

The secret to making your own Tron-inspired clothing and accessories is EL wire, which can be used by anyone who can wield a sewing machine and a soldering iron. Ladyada and Becky Stern used the wire to make a Tron-flavored messenger bag. Once you get the technique down, you can use electro luminescent wire to spice up any clothing or fabric items. Complete instructions and a video will show you how.

OK, now you know how to really stand out from the crowd at the News Years Eve party!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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