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14 Creative and Clever Soaps

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If you want to get a gift for someone who seems to have everything they need or want, here's a bit of advice. You should get them something they can use up! Or else get them something that's so different and creative that they'll treasure it anyway. The soaps on the list could fill both suggestions.

1. Beaker and Test Tube Soaps

The Mad Scientist Soaps Gift Set contains a beaker and a test tube. Order as many as you like and Meilin at Two Eggplants Company will ship you the colors and scents you prefer. The soaps pictured are scented with raspberries, mint, and orange, but you can get unscented or even custom smells and colors. If you look close, you'll see bubbles at the top of the "chemicals" in the containers! Perfect for a scientist (mad or not), a science geek, or a student.

2. Game of Foams

Is someone on your gift list a Game of Thrones fanatic? They'll be thrilled to get a hand-carved soap with a crest for their preferred clan, here called Game of Foams. The Soap of Stark features a grey wolf on winter white, and the Soap of Lannister features a golden lion on crimson. Your choice, from GeekSoap.

3. Rice Krispy Treats Soap

This looks tempting, but don't take a bite out of it! These Rice Krispies treats are soap made of vegan glycerin. Are they crunchy? I don't know! But they will get you clean.

4. Fingers Soap

Get your hands clean with finger soap! These disembodied fingers come in a set of four so you can use as little or as much as you need. Creepy, yes, but they'll certainly draw attention -and may even encourage the most reluctant kids to lather up in the bathtub!

5. Cinnamon Chai Soap

A cup of chai is so tasty and relaxing, but can be fattening if you don't limit yourself. Cinnamon chai soap is NOT fattening at all, and has that same delicious scent that will linger after your bath.

6. Christmas Ribbon Candy Soap

If you buy Christmas candy soap, you'll want to keep it for yourself, or give it early enough for the recipient to display before the holiday. Of course, no matter how impressed guests are with your artistic soap, they won't actually use it because it's too pretty. So what? Use it yourself or save it to put out again next year! Ribbon candy soap smells like Christmas candy and comes in a random variety of red, white, and greens stripes -just like the real thing!

7. Beer Soap

Brooklyn Brewery, a real beer brewery, offers Beer Soap in their gift shop. Yes, there's beer in it, your choice of lager, ale, or stout. Hey, if beer is good for a shampoo, it must be good for body soap, too!

8. My Poop Does Not Stink

Now, this proves that you can get soap in any shape whatsoever. Titled My Poop Does Not Stink, this soap should always be in the bathroom -not the kitchen! Hand made by Leeana Provan of LoveLeeSoaps. She has quite a selection of more conventional soaps, too, including many Christmas designs.

9. Hamburger Soap

It's pretty neat to have soap in the shape of a hamburger patty, two pieces of bun, a piece of lettuce and a slice of tomato! Stack your soap hamburger however you want. The bun is French bread scented, which makes sense, but the rest is ...wait for it... bacon scented! No, it doesn't make sense, but isn't it wonderful? Of course, if you have time for a custom order, you can get this burger in another scent.

10. Elements

What's your favorite element? A collection called In Your Element has a variety of soap bars featuring different element symbols. Shown is uranium, which glows in the dark. The elements are colored somewhat like the element it represents. The sodium bar contains salt for scrubbing! If you can't make up your mind, BubbleGenius also has bars with several elements on them, spelling out "foam" or "soap," or you can get a set of a dozen bars.

11. Periodic Table Soap

You can also get the entire periodic table in one bar of soap from Two Eggplants.

12. D20 Soap On A Rope

Soap on a rope has been a Christmas gift staple for men for well over a half-century. Make it more than useful to your favorite D&D geek in the shape of a D20 die! Next thing you know, he'll be rolling the soap to determine what body part to wash next. The die is handmade with the regulation 20 sides, and it smells good, too.

13. Caffeinated Soap

Invigorate yourself in the morning with caffeine-infused soap. Each bar is made of vegetable-based glycerin with peppermint scent and caffeine. If you make a bar last for a dozen showers, you should get 200 milligrams of caffeine per shower, which can be absorbed through your skin depending on how long you leave it on.

14. Dentures

Dentures soap might not be the best gift for an elderly person who 1. wears dentures and b. doesn't see very well. But for anyone else it should be perfectly safe -and funny! Cup not included.

But that's not all! See more unusual soaps in the previous posts 10 Strange and Wonderful Soaps, 8 Attention-grabbing Soaps, and 9 Odd and Unusual Soaps.

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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
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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