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The 14-Year-Old Who Convinced People to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide

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Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

In the spring of 1997, a 14-year-old’s school science fair project made a convincing argument to ban a dangerous chemical compound: dihydrogen monoxide, known as DHMO. Nathan Zohner, a junior high school student in Idaho, gave 50 of his fellow students a report called "Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer,” which accurately laid out the dangers of DHMO, convincing the majority of students to call for its ban. The experiment caused enough of a splash that it was picked up by The Washington Post.

The compound can corrode and rust metal and cause severe burns, the paper correctly argued. If you consume it, it can cause bloating and excessive urination and sweating. Thousands of people in the U.S. die from its accidental ingestion every year. If you are dependent on it, going through withdrawal can kill you. It’s found in significant quantities in acid rain, tumors, and more. Armed with this information and asked what the world should do about the threat of DHMO, 43 of Zohner’s classmates voted to ban the compound, citing its deadly nature. Lucky for them, no lawmaker would agree: DHMO is the chemical formula for water. Zohner—whose project won the grand prize at the regional science fair that year—wasn’t the first person to drive people into hysterics over the (real) dangers of DHMO, which can in fact burn, drown, and otherwise harm you in its various forms.

One of the earliest iterations of the hoax came from a Michigan paper called The Durand Express, which ran a piece decrying the harms of DHMO as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1983. Zohner’s experiment highlighted how easily young students—even those who had taken chemistry—could be taken in by misleading, fear-mongering scientific information. But scientific illiteracy isn’t just an issue with kids, and the widespread ability to Google basic facts hasn’t kept similar hoaxes and conspiracy theories from taking root in the public imagination today.

People still believe that fluoride in the water is a result of the government trying to poison them (fluoridation has been called one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, causing a major decline in dental cavities and tooth loss across populations) or that vaccines cause autism (an idea, widely disproven, that was based on a 12-person study that used falsified data) or that deodorant can cause breast cancer (no scientific evidence supports this claim, according to the National Cancer Institute).

Consider the recent trend of “detoxing” propagated by publications like Goop. Most people don’t know what “toxins” they’re trying to filter out with their expensive juice cleanses to begin with, but doctors point out that the human body is pretty well equipped to handle the damaging materials you throw at it—like, say, alcohol. With no real scientific evidence to back it up, it’s the modern equivalent of leeching, experts have pointed out.

No doubt Gwyneth Paltrow would be as worried about DHMO as she is about underwire bras causing cancer (don’t worry, they don’t). The lesson of Zohner’s project, two decades later? Chemicals aren’t always bad. Everything is made of chemicals, and just because it has a name you can’t pronounce doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. It’s easy to get taken in by doomsday pseudoscience—because hey, pollution is truly dangerous and most of us haven’t taken a science class in decades. But with a little bit of skepticism and some basic research skills, we can all learn to sort through the false facts. In moderation, a little DHMO is a wonderful thing.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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