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Ragdoll Productions

11 Web Toys and Generators to Waste Your Time

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Ragdoll Productions

A couple of months ago, I listed 17 Web Toys for Your Procrastination Pleasure. Now that final exams are over, maybe you'll now have time to play with them -plus eleven more here. Some are fairly new, some are classics, and this list is heavy on music. Have fun!

1. Sort Your Socks

Dutch artist Jogchem Niemandsverdriet, who brought us the classic game of tweezing nose hairs, also has a game in which you sort socks. I do enough of that in real life, but online it's a pleasant distraction. And the graphic that rewards you for a job well done is worth the effort!

2. Incredibox

Design your own songs without knowing a thing about music with Incredibox. Even after you assign music parts to each singer, you can drop them, add more, and make it sound completely different.

3. Desktop Blues

If your taste run a little more to the traditional, try playing the blues with Desk Top Blues. Press all the buttons to familiarize yourself with the sounds before you turn the radio on, and then go crazy making your own blues! There are more soundboard toys linked in icons across the top of the page, like singing in the shower and Guitar Machine. Or you can go to the Instant Blues site to play more blues with different artists.

4. The Singing Horses

One of my favorite music generator toys from way back is the Singing Horses. They may look goofy, but each has a particular talent that blends well with the others. All you need to do is turn them on and off, one by one. Your timing in doing so is important.

5. The Whitney Music Box

The Whitney Music Box is a classic that's worth visiting over and over. It is a demonstration of motion graphics to accompany John Whitney 's book Digital Harmony. The dots are arranged to trigger notes on a chromatic scale when they pass the line. The dots are each timed to a different speed, but they synchronize themselves at constant intervals. Its a bit hard to describe, but you'll love seeing it in action. There are 20 music box variations.

6. iDaft

iDaft is a sound board on which you can recreate the Daft Punk song "Harder Better Faster Stronger" in your own way, using whatever lines you like in any order. It works! You can use a backbeat, but it's not necessary.

7. Tone Matrix

Tone Matrix is a simple audio sequencer. The time sequence is left to right, the audio tones range from high to low, top to bottom. Playing is automatic, so you can change the sequence as it plays nice marimba tones.

8. The Boobah Zone

Boobah is a British TV series for children. It was cancelled in 2005, but the interactive website accompanying it lives on, and has become a go-to spot for adult web surfers wasting time. The Boobah Zone has a great number of games, interactive art, and silliness you access by clicking different parts of the page. MANY different parts of the page!

9. Catflakes

It's snowing catflakes! Once you've watched this mesmerizing web toy for a while, you might notice the control panel at the bottom right. You can change the wind speed, the amount of catflakes, and even their colors. There's also a special button at the bottom you must try.

10. Cold Void

This interactive web toy Cold Void by Rafaël Rozendaal is a real "web" toy, in that you have a spider web you can tear down. Notice that it is one of many web toys you can access at the top of the page, although some contain flashing pages that may trigger an epileptic seizure. Some that don't include a nice controllable rain shower and a sweating watermelon

11. I Love You Like A Fat Lady Loves Apples

This is weird. There's a fat lady who loves apples, but you need to help her eat them. Then there are some other surprises along the way that make no sense. But does it have to make sense to be fun?

And if you look carefully, you may see that there are actually more than eleven web toys linked here (wink wink).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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