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9 Essential Facts for the Crustacean Enthusiast

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1. Let them eat lobster! In colonial America, lobster wasn’t the delicacy it is today. In fact, it was so cheap and plentiful, it was a staple for prisoners and servants. One group of servants from Massachusetts actually grew so tired of eating lobster that they took their employers to court, where a judge ruled that lobster was to be served to them no more than three times a week.


2. Judge them not by the color of their skin. In their ocean habitat, lobsters are brown. (They turn red when you cook them.) However, there are a few notable exceptions. About one in every 4 million lobsters is born with a rare genetic defect that turns it blue. Sadly, these prized critters rarely survive to adulthood. After all, a bright blue crustacean crawling around the ocean floor is simply easier for predators to spot. Yellow lobsters are even more uncommon, making up only one in every 30 million. But if you end up with a yellow or blue one on your plate, don’t worry; lobsters of all hues are equally delicious.

3. A century of meat. Most lobsters weigh between 1.5 and 2 lbs., but one lumbering beast caught off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1977 measured 3.5 feet from claw to tail and weighed 44 lbs. How does a lobster put on that sort of weight? With age. He was 100 years old.

4. Showing too much leg. In 2003, the seafood chain Red Lobster ran a promotion offering customers $20 all-you-can-eat snow crab legs. The gimmick was both incredibly successful and a mistake. Hungry seafood lovers flocked to the restaurants, where most of them plowed through a lot more crab than the company anticipated. Even when Red Lobster raised the price to $25 per person, it still lost money on the deal.

5. Everything you ever wanted to know about seafood, but were afraid to ask. In 2010, Red Lobster restaurants across America began equipping their wait staff with computer-based “Seafood Expert Encyclopedias.” The technology allows waiters to look up the answer to any seafood-related question posed to them. So ask away.

6. The silent treatment. In Disney’s 1940 animated film Pinocchio, Mel Blanc played the character of Gideon the Cat, one of the scoundrels who introduces Pinocchio to the world of vice. Blanc, who famously voiced Bugs Bunny, recorded an entire movie’s worth of dialogue for Gideon. But during post-production, Disney decided that the character would be cuter if he was mute. All of Blanc’s lines were cut, except for three burps, which you can hear during the brief scene at the Red Lobster Inn.

7. A parent’s job is never done. Red Lobster and Olive Garden are both owned by Darden Restaurants, a parent company that’s pretty overprotective. In 2010, Darden filed suit against a San Diego T.G.I. Friday’s for running a “never ending shrimp” promotion. Darden argued that the campaign combined Olive Garden’s “never ending pasta bowl” with Red Lobster’s “endless shrimp” in a way that “willfully attempted to confuse and mislead consumers.” The case is still tied up in court, where lawyers are dealing with “never ending paperwork.”

8. Out of the pot and into the fire. In October 2010, British inventor Simon Buckhaven introduced the world to a lethal device known as The Crustastun. It might look like a harmless computer scanner, but it’s designed to zap a lobster with an electric shock, killing it in less than two seconds. Animal-rights groups have praised the invention as a more humane method of killing lobsters—at least more humane than boiling them alive.

9. Imagine all the lobsters. In 1979, The B-52s song “Rock Lobster” became the band’s first to hit the Billboard Top 100. At the time, former Beatle John Lennon had been away from music for about three years, but after hearing “Rock Lobster,” he was supposedly inspired to start writing music again. Lennon said the song moved him because it “sounds just like Yoko’s music.” It’s unclear whether or not that was a compliment.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are the details. Got an iPad or another tablet device? We also offer digital subscriptions through Zinio.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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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