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11 Places Where Wonderful Things Are Happening

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A casual perusal of the newspaper, or fifteen minutes watching cable news, could cause even the most relaxed person to reach for the Xanax and a bottle of whiskey. But it’s not all bad news out there. Here are 11 places where wonderful things are happening.

1. Space

Two hundred fifty miles up, two astronauts went on a space walk to prepare the International Space Station for a new Russian repair module. That’s a lot of mind-blowing stuff for one sentence. Humanity crawled from the oceans and found a way to space. The U.S. and Russia managed not only to survive the Cold War without using the nuclear launch codes, but also to then team up and build an orbiting space laboratory. That laboratory is so awesome that we can plug in Lego-like compartments and expand its capabilities, and thus expand human knowledge and understanding. One of the astronauts, Luca Parmitano, is now the first Italian to walk in space. They had tiramisu to mark the occasion. Humans are eating tiramisu in space! And, oh yeah, astronauts. That’s a job that people have. 

2. Antarctica

Scientists believe they have discovered “a complex web of organisms, zones and habitats that have developed over the tens of millions of years” in a lake four kilometers below Antarctica. That area has been sealed off from the atmosphere fifty times longer than anatomically modern humans have existed, so there’s a lot to be learned about the Earth of the past. And here’s the crazy thing—we’re learning it! Want to get even crazier? The conditions of Lake Vostok, where ancient fish might be swimming around, are a lot like the conditions on moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. Space fish? Coming soon.

3. The Arctic Circle

Meanwhile, engineering students who visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center have managed to build an autonomous robot tank with ground penetrating radar that’s able to operate in harshest terrain of the Arctic Circle. This is really great news because humans don’t do so well at 50-below-zero-Celsius. Sending in robots will open vast new areas to constant research. Also, we’re living in an age where I can write “sending in robots” outside of science fiction. (Here’s a blog from NASA Earth Observatory describing life at Summit Camp, Greenland, where the robot is operating.) 

4. Pennsylvania

Thirty years ago, there were only three bald eagle nesting pairs left in Pennsylvania. Today there are 252. Pollution and poaching nearly annihilated the raptors, but conservation efforts have been so successful that after a two-century absence, a nesting pair has even returned to Philadelphia.

5. Mars

After six months of exploring Yellowknife Bay on Mars, the rover Curiosity has set a course for Aeolis Mons in the Gale Crater. The peak, informally called Mount Sharp, developed over a period of two billion years and stands 18,000 over the crater floor. From base to peak, that’s about the height of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. (Mount Sharp is nicknamed after geologist Robert Sharp. Geologists do some surprisingly thrilling work.) During the yearlong trek to the peak, Curiosity and NASA will continue analyzing Martian soil for biosignatures, minerals, and surface radiation.

6. Canada

Ann Makosinski of British Columbia, Canada, has created a “hollow flashlight” powered only by the heat of one’s hand. The energy is harvested using something called Peltier tiles. As she explains, the tiles “take the temperature difference between your hand and the ambient air, and they produce power.” Oh yeah, Makosinski is only 15, and the flashlight is her entry in the Google Science Fair. She cobbled together the necessary parts from eBay. Said the young researcher of science fairs, “You learn so much about the topic you are studying—I learned so much from it. It’s a really good experience for people, too. So often we don’t do anything with our hands but text, so here’s a chance to do something.”

7. New Jersey

In New Jersey, another teenager is getting attention for his inventiveness. Justin Beckerman, a high school junior, has built a fully functional, homemade submarine capable of reaching depths of 30 feet. The project isn’t his first submarine, but it’s his most ambitious. It took five months to build and cost $2000. The restless inventor is also working on a jet engine.

8. Sydney

Over a three-year period, the City of Sydney upgraded its lighting, air conditioning, and power management systems, reducing energy consumption by 20 percent. It’s not stopping there. The government is now working on an efficiency plan for the entirety of Sydney, with a 2030 goal of reducing the city’s carbon emissions by 70 percent. By that year, government buildings will be entirely powered by renewable energy. 

9. California and Scotland

Steve Bate of Moray, Scotland has become the first blind person to climb El Capitan in Yosemite. The vertical granite formation is 3000 feet high. He climbed it over a period of six days, while carrying 220 pounds of gear. "I fell twice on the climb,” he said, “and it was so hot out there, I became tired a lot quicker than I had accounted for... It was really tough and when I finished I couldn't really understand where all my strength had come from.” He says of the pretty-much-impossible achievement, "I just hope it helps to inspire people, especially with disabilities, to believe that anything is possible if they set their minds to it. If I can do it, anyone can." He even did it without Spock’s help.

10. New York

Physicists at Cornell University have managed to directly measure the torque of DNA coils. To achieve this, they built something called an angular optical trap. Their measurements are accurate to the piconewton-nanometer. (Pretty accurate, in other words.) According to physicist Michelle Wang, whose lab spent ten years developing the necessary technology, “To measure very, very small twists and torques on biomolecules is very challenging. It’s easier to twist something than to measure how much twist you’re exerting. Our instrument lets us do both.” According to “Transcription Under Torsion,” the paper she coauthored for Nature with physicists Jie Ma and Lu Bai, the research helps us better understand how DNA supercoiling regulates gene transcription.

11. Istanbul

This list of good news could have consisted entirely of ambitious teenagers ready to change the world and working to make it happen. Elif Bilgin, a sixteen-year-old from Istanbul, is just such a person. She recognized an ongoing environmental crisis in plastics, and spent two years working on her own bio-plastic—a kind of plastic derived from a renewable source as opposed to the traditional petroleum base. She chose banana peels as her source, and set a goal of devising a bio-plastic production method so safe and elegant than anyone could manufacture it in his or her own home. (Banana peels were chosen because they are “a material which is thrown away every day,” according to her proposal.)

After two years of work and ten failed trials, she finally succeeded. She then went on to find the best applications for her new kind of plastic. Her findings suggested cosmetic prostheses and cable insulation, for starters. Her banana-based bio-plastic won the 2013 Science in Action Award, and has earned her a place as a finalist in the Google Science Fair. Asked about her success and the science fair to come, she replied, “For me, this means that my project actually has a potential to be a solution to the increasing pollution problem caused by petroleum-based plastic. It also means that I have started the process of changing the world, which makes me feel like a winner already.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.