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How Perfecting Bug Spray Could Save Millions of Lives

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Mosquitoes ruin countless American picnics every year, but around the world, the whine of this bloodsucking beast isn’t just irritating—it heralds an epic health problem. More than a million people die from the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever each year. Attempts to control populations via insecticides like DDT have had ruinous side effects for nature and possibly human health. Neurobiologist Leslie B. Vosshall has a different solution for stopping the insects and the spread of disease. “I believe the key to controlling mosquito behavior is to understand better how they sense us,” she says.

At their Rockefeller University lab, Vosshall and her colleagues are studying the chemical sensory processes by which mosquitoes choose hosts. How do they sense heat, humidity, carbon dioxide, and body odor? What makes some people more attractive to a mosquito than others? It takes blood and sweat to find out. To study how mosquitoes assess body odor, Vosshall and her teammates might wear nylon stockings on their arms and refrain from showering for 24 hours to create sample smells. Then comes the hard part. They insert their limbs into the insects’ den to study how mosquitoes land, bite, and feed and then they document how this changes depending on both the mosquitoes’ genetics and the particular traits of the scientists’ skin. This can mean getting anywhere from one bite to a whopping 400, depending on the experiment. Studying male mosquitoes is more pleasant; since they don’t feed on blood, the lab tests their sense of smell using honey.

Making Mutant Mosquitoes

Vosshall and her team have also begun to study how genetics contribute to mosquitoes’ choice of a host. With a bit of tinkering, she’s even created a breed that is unable to sense carbon dioxide, an important trigger for the insects. “By using genetics to make mutant mosquitoes, we can document exactly how and why this cue acts to make mosquitoes hunt humans,” Vosshall says.

Once Vosshall figures out what makes mosquitoes flock to us, she can get to work on making them leave us alone. Many of her lab’s proposed solutions sound simple enough, including bracelets that carry long-lasting repellants or traps that can reduce populations, but the breakthroughs may save millions of lives in the developing world—and a lot of itching everywhere else.

This story originally appeared in the Think Small issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue here!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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