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Our 12 Favorite End of 2012 Lists

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'Tis the season to be making lists, and checking them twice, about the best and the worst of 2012. Here are 12 of our favorites, in no particular order.

1. Poynter's "Best and Worst Media Errors and Corrections of 2012"

"It’s important to acknowledge the amusing and outrageous, and to collect them to help journalists avoid making the same mistakes," Craig Silverman writes of this list, which he calls a highlight of his year-end coverage. "I also want to celebrate the correction writers who went beyond the call of duty to offer something special." This list has everything from CNN and Fox's major fails in reporting the Supreme Court's Affordable Care Act decision to the New York Times' My Little Pony mistake to my personal favorite, this correction in Vogue:

2. BuzzFeed's "30 Most Important Cats of 2012"

From Chimera Cat to weather-interrupting cat to Henri, le chat noir (above), the felines on this list will make you laugh and fill you with joy.

3. Movies.com's "10 Most Overrated Films of 2012"

There are probably a lot of movies you saw and loved and will want to defend on this list, but author David Ehrlich's takedowns are hilarious and definitely worth a read. On why people like The Hunger Games, for example:

Because you always thought that Battle Royale could have used Miley Cyrus’ fiancé and some mutant CG dogs, or maybe your name is Bumblethatch Hoggledeuce, and you’ve finally found a movie to vindicate decades of merciless mockery. More likely, a tripod killed your parents and Gary Ross’ incomprehensible direction is the closest thing you’ll ever get to revenge.

Burn! And he's just getting started.

4. Mashable's "Top Memes of 2012"

This list is a walk down memeory lane (sorry, I couldn't resist). And what a great year for memes! Our favorites are Overly Attached Girlfriend (her version of Justin Beiber's hit song is the only one we'll ever sing), dog shaming, McKayla is not Impressed, and Texts from Hillary.

5. Flavorwire's "The Most Controversial Artworks of 2012"

It's more than just paintings. This list includes Damien Hirst's butterfly-killing exhibit at the Tate in London (above), the desecration of an original Rothko, and the Andres Serrano artwork that probably inspired Glenn Beck.

6. The New York Times' "Words of 2012"

We have our own list of words we learned this year; this is the Times' take, a collection of words that entered the cultural lexicon thanks to news events. Frankenstorm, Eastwooding, and YOLO all made the cut.

7. Bad Astronomy's "The Most Beautiful Pictures in the Universe, 2012"

The Universe is a marvelous, wonderful, breathtakingly beautiful place. Need proof? Look no further than Phil Plait's list of the 21 most gorgeous photos of our universe taken this year. Plait also explains what's going on in each photo. My favorite is the photo above, of Venus transiting the sun, which Plait explains poetically:

Venus orbits closer to the Sun than the Earth does, and on rare occasions our orbits align such that Venus passes directly in front of the Sun. The last time this happened was in 2004, and it happened again on June 5, 2012. ... [T]his view from the NASA/JAXA (Japanese Space Agency) Hinode spacecraft [was taken] just as Venus was fully entering the Sun’s disk. The Sun looks like a boiling cauldron with Venus silhouetted against it. The ring around the planet is from Venus’s thick atmosphere, scattering and bending the sunlight coming through from the other side.

How can you not want to read more?

8. Gizmodo's "Biggest Tech Disappointments of 2012"

Image courtesy of GeekOSystem.

There were plenty of breakthrough, game changing tech products in 2012. These products had potential that they just couldn't live up to. The Google Nexus Q "should've never made it out of Google R&D." Sony's SmartWatch is "garbage." And don't even get them started on that Back to the Future "hoverboard." That was the biggest disappointment of all.

9. Wired's "Top Scientific Discoveries of 2012"

Catch up on a year's worth of incredible scientific breakthroughs by reading this list, which covers the discovery of the Higgs Boson "God Particle," Space X's two trips to the International Space Station, putting Curiosity on Mars, and many more. "While [these picks] may not all be discoveries exactly," the blog says, "they all will have a major, lasting impact on science and the world."

10. BuzzFeed's "25 Funniest Autocorrects of 2012"

They'll make you laugh! They'll make you cringe! They'll make you proofread your texts before sending! (I swear that the Erin in #7 isn't me.)

11. Tin House's Incredibly Specific Books List

Elissa Schappell is kind of irritated with lists. "This time of year all anyone can talk about is lists," she writes. "How particular will these 2012 lists get? How can you use these lists to improve your life?" To that end, she put together this list of books (some of which weren't released in 2012) that you can give, and by giving achieve a certain goal. There's "Best Book of 2012 to give, or read in front of that moody guy/gal at the coffee place who half the times seems to dig you and the rest of the time seems to think you’re shallow," "Best Book of 2012 that will convince your parents that you’re a serious person and they ought to lend you money," and more.

12. Slate's "Explainer Unanswered Questions 2012"

The questions on this list—which, according to post author Daniel Engber, "the Explainer felt unprepared (or perhaps unwilling) to address in 2012"—are funny, odd, and surprisingly thought provoking. Our favorites:

"What happened to the two straight lines through the S on the $? Why is it now just one?"

"Why do I smell peanut butter when I rub my eyes vigorously?"

"Has anyone ever actually used a falling chandelier to take someone out?"

"What is the deal with Bob Dylan and trains?"

"Why can someone who has trouble seeing things up close go into any drugstore and pay $15 for a pair of glasses, while someone who has trouble seeing things far away has to go through the trouble and expense of getting an eye exam and buying prescription glasses? Why is the presbyopic public deemed competent to decide whether their lens prescription is a +1.25 or a +1.50 while their myopic brethren are thought to be unable to discern between a -1.25 and a -1.50 lens without the help of a medical professional?"

"Why do people consider bears as adorable animals, while everyone knows that they can attack humans severely?"

Head on over to Slate to read the full list, and vote for your favorite, which The Explainer will not only name The Question of the Year, but also answer that question.

BONUS: The Onion's "Best Quotes of '2012'"

Well played, sirs.

What are some of your favorite year-end lists?

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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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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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