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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

10 Things Banned in Other Countries, but Legal in the U.S.

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

1. Baby walkers

Babies in Canada have to learn to walk the old-fashioned way. The country banned once-popular baby walkers in 2004, after they were found to endanger babies and delay motor and mental development. Possession or selling of a baby walker can result in fines of up to $100,000 or six months in jail.

2. Ketchup in school cafeterias

A school cafeteria without ketchup? It's un-American! In 2011, France banned the tomato condiment from school cafeterias in order to preserve French cuisine. The one ironic exception: Students can still eat ketchup on French fries.

3. Incandescent light bulbs

Phasing out incandescent light bulbs isn't as easy as flipping a switch. But other countries are ahead of the U.S. on this one. Cuba was the first to the finish line when it brought in CFLs and banned the sale and import of the old-school bulbs in 2005. Argentina followed suit in 2010, and EU member countries reached the final stage of a three-year phase-out in 2012.

4. Mullets

In America, it's your right to have whatever terrible hairstyle you want. Not so in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 2010, the Ministry of Culture banned several "decadent" Western men's hairstyles, including the mullet, spikes, and ponytails. Hairdon'ts are punishable by fine.

5. Plastic bags

Bangladesh started a trend in 2002 when it became the first country to ban plastic bags. Bag bans have caught on all over the world, from France to Tanzania to Mexico City. (Here's a map.) San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in 2007, and Los Angeles followed suit in in 2013. This July, the entire state of California will begin phasing out the shopping bags, thanks to a bill signed into law in September by Governor Jerry Brown.

6. Spanking

School corporal punishment is still allowed in 19 U.S. states. But in some countries, parents can't even spank their kids. Sweden was the first to ban the belt and paddle in 1979. Now moms and dads in 46 countries rely solely on the time-out.

7. BHA and BHT preservatives

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) aren't just hard to pronounce. They're carcinogenic ... and found in almost all packaged foods in the U.S. Human consumption of BHA and BHT is banned in more than 160 countries.

8. Chewing gum

While the actual act of chewing gum was never illegal, Singapore burst gum lovers' bubbles when it outlawed the importation and sale of Bazooka Joe and the like in 1992. The ban stuck, but was slightly changed in 2004. Singaporans interested in the oral health benefits of sugar-free gum can now get a prescription — but still face stiff penalties if they're caught littering with it. 

9. Weird baby names

What's in a baby name? Legislation in Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, and many other countries. If Danish parents don't choose one of the 7000 government-approved names for their bundle of joy, they're required to get church approval. New Zealand and Sweden add to their lists of banned baby names each year. The names "V8" and "Superman," respectively, weren't allowed, but "Violence" and "Google" were.

10. Tobacco

A 2006 Business Week survey named Bhutan not only the happiest country in Asia, but also the eighth happiest country in the world. Four years later, the Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan aimed to increase Gross National Happiness by banning the cultivation, harvesting, production, and sale of harmful tobacco products. But here's a happy loophole for smokers: Tobacco consumption is still legal.

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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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