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5 Ordinary Things That Save Your Life Every Day Without You Knowing It

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By Therese Oneill

1. Tap water

Water is problematic. You need it to live, but it's practically aching to kill you. Naturally occurring water, even when not soiled by human contact, can be swimming with an untold number of murderous micro-organisms.

Now, tap water, which is decidedly non-fatal, has gotten a bad rap in recent years. We believe it's just not as pure as our favored bottled water, which (we're subconsciously convinced) sprang straight from the heart of an ice-blue glacier.

Treated tap water may not be nearly as palatable as Evian, but it's ubiquitous, affordable, and you can drink it without getting sick or dying. For most of history, that simply wasn't true.

Tap water is brilliant. It is the result of a complex system of collection, storage, purification, and transportation. Common waterborne illnesses have been laying waste to humanity all over the world for all of time: diseases like botulism, cholera, E.coli, Legionnaires' disease, Hepatitis A, SARS, and all the sicknesses that killed your family when you played Oregon Trail. ("Yoda has died of typhoid.") These diseases still ravage the Third World. But where there is regulated tap water, they are rare. Tap water is often safer than the stuff that comes from random, untested "natural" springs, which can be contaminated with everything from sewage run-off to dangerously excessive fluoride dissolved out of granite.

There are endless controversies regarding the methods used to make tap water potable. Depending on the needs of the water source, a cocktail of chemicals might be added to make the water drinkable. And even if the amounts used have been proven safe, people don't like thinking that they're giving their sun-flushed children a tall icy glass of teeth-strengthening disinfectant to cool off. But thousands of dead bodies buried along the real Oregon Trail, most of whom died from water-related illnesses ("don't poop where you drink" is a disturbingly new concept) call out that there are worse alternatives to the plastic aftertaste of chlorinated water.

2. Refrigerators

Fresh meat rots. Unless you completely change its constitution by dehydrating, smoking, salting, or canning meat, microscopic organisms will began devouring it, leaving putrid waste behind. They live in the animal when it is still alive, and more come into contact with the meat in every stage of its preparation. Basically, when it comes to eating a good fresh steak, it's you against the bacteria.

Rotting is bad because your body hates all the bacteria and fungi that are consuming that meat. Your digestive tract hates them so much it will turn itself into a sluice-run for however long it takes to get all that gross stuff out of you. And your guts really don't care if you die of dehydration on the way to that goal. It's not just animal products, either. Even fresh greens are halfway to moldy slush once cut from their roots.

Your refrigerator slows all those bacteria down. Makes them sleepy and sluggish, giving you more time to eat safe, fresh food. It makes the constant chess game your body plays against foreign pathogens slightly more in your favor. It also allows for the transportation of food, which is why you get to eat fresh fruits and vegetables in January, when your great grandparents were force-fed canned spinach with spongy potatoes.

3. Road markings

The U.S uses many road markings to communicate with drivers, some of which, let's admit, are utterly baffling. But the purest one, the right-hand-side white line, might be the most useful. Its function? To assure you. To keep a driver calm and aware. When all other sources of orientation are obscured, by fog, darkness, rain or falling snow, that white line on the side of the road is most likely to still be visible. If your night vision is poor, or if the high beams of the oncoming highway traffic make you nervous, there remains the quiet white line to steady your focus. The line reflects the beam of your headlights and allows you to be sure of your place on the road, that you're neither drifting into traffic, or off a cliff. A recent study done in England compared accidents before and after white line road markings were updated. In the area studied, accidents went from 16 to 6. Accidents that occurred on wet nights disappeared altogether, as did serious accidents.

4. Bug spray

"Pesticides" and "herbicides" are such ugly words, aren't they? Spraying poisonous chemicals over our environment and food just to keep the occasional mosquito and ladybug away. Of course, an even uglier word is "malaria." "Starvation" isn't pretty, either.

Eating local and organic is great if you can afford it, and if you live in a region that can provide enough local food for all its residents. But that isn't always possible. Ireland in the mid-19th century is an example of what happens when the creepy-crawlies are more terrifying than the chemicals used to kill them. Ireland's main food crop, potatoes, became blighted with disease. Nearly 1 million people starved to death because a microscopic infection spoiled their food. Herbicides prevent that from happening now, allow for mass food production, and keep food bountiful and affordable.

Pesticides also prevent disease transmitted by insects. Malaria, Lyme disease, dengue, ehrlichiosis, Rift Valley fever, and West Nile virus have killed thousands in the past, especially in hot and damp climates. Malaria was so prevalent during the building of the Panama Canal that an enormous, chemical mosquito-killing campaign had to be instigated before the project could be completed. Pesticides are not perfect, but their risk-to-reward ratio is satisfactory to most consumers.

5. Toilets

Continuing on the theme of deadly things that go in and out of your body, your toilet is the magnum opus of civilization. The outhouse was the primary predecessor to the toilet in the western world, and they weren't so great. A hole in the ground was a fairly decent place to store excrement, except when the sewage seeped into water tables. Not to mention there wasn't enough room for everyone to have a proper, sanitary(ish) outhouse in high-population areas. Urban citizens found outhouses impractical. They usually preferred pooping in pots. If you were rich, the contents of the pot were collected by servants and disposed of in a latrine, or river, or wherever. If you weren't rich, you threw it out the window.

Basically, feces was everywhere. Especially in cities. And feces kills people. It's called the Fecal-Oral Route of Disease Transmission and it is just as horrible as it sounds. Toilets changed all of that. Your toilet is connected to beautiful pipes, pipes that end in water-tight reinforced septic tanks, or a city sewage treatment plant. Your toilet is one of the reasons you are not likely to be part of the 3.4 million people who die of waterborne illness each year.

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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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