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11 Human and Animal Bodily Byproducts That Sell for Cold, Hard Cash

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Humans and other animals ooze and excrete valuable substances that are worth a pretty penny on the open market. There's a very specific going rate for much of what's inside us (especially the gross stuff). If you're thinking about getting in on the bodily fluid trade, here are 11 icky substances expelled by living things that are worth some serious cash.

1. Guano, Seabird, and Bat Poop

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You don't have to be Ace Ventura to know that the feces of seabirds and bats makes for great fertilizer. The demand for guano is high and the industry is once again thriving, but the smelly commodity is not mined with the same fervor that it was in the late 1800s, when the multimillion-dollar poop trade inspired diplomatic disputes and proxy wars throughout the Pacific islands and South America.

2. Ambergris (Whale Poop/Vomit)

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Ambergris is a bile substance that is digested and excreted or coughed up by sperm whales. It hardens in the ocean and occasionally washes ashore, looking like a large stone. Freshly pooped or spewed, ambergris has an intensely foul odor. But after a careful aging process, the hardened vomit takes on a sweet, earthy scent—highly prized in the fragrance business for its use in colognes and perfumes. Finding a couple pounds of ambergris on the beach is nearly as good as happening upon several thousand dollars in hard cash.

3. Toddy Cat Coffee Bean Droppings

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When the Asian palm civet, or Toddy cat, eats scavenged coffee beans during harvest season, it deposits (poops) them out the other end of its digestive tract with the outer shell removed and the beans' flavors somehow enhanced. Ground up, the bean droppings make a cup of joe worth anywhere from $8 to $30. Caffeine aficionados swear by the stuff.

4. Human Eggs and Sperm

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This one is no surprise, but the reverse gender wage gap is interesting. While men's sperm typically fetches somewhere between $50 and $200, in 2010, a woman could earn upwards of $5000 for donating a portion of her more finite supply of eggs.

5. Human Plasma

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Most people give their blood away for free. Suckers! The part of your blood that fills it with proteins that help it clot—the plasma—can make you $300 a month.

6. Human Hair

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My friend once tossed his wet, recently shaved hair through the open window of a college sorority's bathroom. All he got was dirty looks and vengeful rumors. He should have sold his hair to wig makers, who actually pay for the locks.

7. Bird Spit

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About 400 years ago, someone in China saw white nest cliff swifts building nests out of their saliva along the high sea walls of the coast and thought, "wow, that would make a great soup." The delicacy has been incorporated into various Chinese dishes ever since. A pound of the stuff is worth more than $1000.

8. Scorpion Venom

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Scorpion venom can leave you writhing in pain, or even dead. It can also land you several thousands of dollars. It's highly prized because protein in the venom can be used to make drugs for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis.

9. Elephant dung coffee

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Like the Toddy cat coffee of Indonesia, the coffee made with beans digested by elephants in Thailand is apparently dark, smooth, and expensive. After a slow, slow roast in the digestive tract of Asian elephants, the coffee beans are ground, brewed, poured into a mug, and sold for $50.

10. Silk

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James and his giant peach weren't in it for the adventure, they were in it for the silk and the cash. Even with the advent of synthetics, real silk remains coveted by the fashion world, making silk worm farming fairly profitable.

11. Castoreum (Beaver Butt Secretion)

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Castoreum is the fluid extracted from the castor sacs, or scent glands, of beavers. The sacs are located right between the base of a beaver's tail and its anal glands. Though castoreum is produced in limited amounts (you can imagine why), it is sellable, as it has a rather pleasant smell and is used in some perfumes (and also as a food additive).

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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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