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12 Deliciously Different Plush Toys

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Look around the world wide web if you want to get a gift that no one else will think of, with a little help from your friendly mental_floss internet scouring service. Some of these plush toys are suitable for children, but not all of them!

1. Alex


Artist AngelaTiara made a rag doll version of Alex DeLarge from the 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. This was a custom order, but I hear you can contact her to have a doll made for yourself.

2. Biochemies


Jun Axup is a graduate student and science artist who started Biochemies as an art and comic site to make science fun and accessible. Biochemies is now branching out into the plush toys business, starting with these cute DNA molecules. The set includes adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, all with magnets in the correct spots in order to bond with each other! You can pre-order yours through Kickstarter.

3. Admiral Akbar


It's not a trap! Jennifer at Handmade Stuffs made this 18-inch tall Admiral Ackbar doll to guide your troops safely to victory against the forces of the Dark Side.

4. Slimer


Jennifer's Etsy Store, Handmade Stuffs, is full of plush characters you won't find at the local toy store. She's got a cuddly Skeletor, Hellboy, Mr. T, and this soft Slimer from the movie Ghostbusters.

5. Two-headed Teddies


Sara at The Tangled Web makes and sells knitted mustaches and anatomical hearts, but I particularly like the two-headed teddy bear. The heads are not identical -they have different-colored eyes! It also has two hearts for twice the love. And get this -the felt fabric is made from recycled plastic bottles.

6. Companion Cube


The cake may be a lie, but the Weighted Companion Cube Plush is real. And you can choose not to incinerate it! If this makes any sense, you must be a fan of the game Portal. The Companion Cube cushions your Portal dreams and is available from Think Geek.

7. Pancakes


How tasty it would be to cuddle up with a stack of pancakes! A stack of three includes a pat of butter and a smile.

8. Pillow Fight!


Swinging a plush sword or light saber makes an everyday pillow fight into something awesome. Bryan Ku's Pillow Fight! is, sadly, an art project at this point, and not (yet) mass-produced. He made these weapons and explosives by silk screening fabric.

9. Edward Gorey's Black Doll


The Black Doll is a creepy unfinished rag doll that appeared in many of the author/illustrator's stories. Now you can have your own!

A life long friend of Edward Gorey's made The Black Doll for him in 1942. Gorey visited her while she was making it and upon seeing it insisted on keeping it in its unfinished state, lacking a face, arms and clothing. In spite of her objection, Edward Gorey prevailed. It may be the first recorded instance of Gorey's enduring dedication to engaging the imagination. The incomplete Black Doll has remained a recurring enigma for almost 70 years appearing in many of Gorey's books and drawings as well as being the subject of his silent screenplay. This is the first time The Black Doll has been produced for Edward Gorey's devoted following.

The doll is offered in a limited run of only 2,000, in conjunction with the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust.

10. Nyan Cat


Most likely to be named the biggest meme of 2011, Nyan Cat comes in many handmade plush versions, but every time I try to track one down, someone buys it! As of this morning, the plush Nyan Cat shown here is available from Etsy seller SunlitDaydreams.

11. Red Shirt Bunny


This brave bunny looks as if he knows what fate befalls all Star Trek red shirts! He is a Woolykin, and was sold almost as fast as he appeared. Jennifer Hugon is the artist behind the Woolykins, which have been made in other cuddly pop culture critter forms. If you want one, you'll have sign up at her Etsy shop to be notified when she returns from maternity leave.

12. Teddy Scares


Teddy Scares are teddy bear zombies! The bear pictured here is named Sheldon Grogg. The bears come in both 6-inch and 12-inch sizes, and each come with their own dreadful backstory.

See also: 10 Bizarre but Cuddly Plush Toys, 13 Plush Toys Grownups Will Love, and 10 Strange and Wonderful Plush Toys.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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