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George Takei Reviews 20 Totally Random Products on Amazon

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Somehow, one of Mental Floss' favorite Star Trek alums-turned-internet-sensations, George Takei, finds time to write Amazon reviews for products you never knew existed. And we're all so lucky that he does.

1. The Mountain Three Wolf Moon Short Sleeve Tee

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "Hand dyed shirt featuring a stunning screen print of three wolves howling at a moon on a preshrunk, 100 percent cotton tee dyed and printed by the mountain."

5 Stars from George Takei, who loves how it lets him browse Walmart undetected: "But with The Mountain Three Wolf Moon Short Sleeve Tee, the SHIRT now draws the eye. One young teen even shyly approached me, and instead of asking for a picture or an autograph, simply smiled conspiratorially and whispered, 'Team Jacob, right? Me, too. He's sooooooo dreamy.' Yes he is, young lady. Yes. He. Is."

2. Looking For... The Best of David Hasselhoff

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "2 new from $149.93, 4 used from $9.37." (Are people listening to this CD until it literally wears out?!)

4 Stars from George Takei, who delights in Hasselhoff's reinvention: "When 'Knight Rider' and 'Bay Watch' ended, I felt a distinct void in my life. Without Hasselfhoff's bouncing pecs gracing my television, life simply felt drab and unfulfilling.

"Imagine my delight when I discovered that Hasselhoff had not disappeared at all, but rather REEMERGED, this time as a serious force in music. It reminded me of when Leonard Nimoy had recorded his stirring tribute to Tolkien, 'The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.' It was that moving and momentous for me."

3. Fresh Whole Rabbit

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "$69,696,969,696,969.70 FREE SHIPPING. COMES FULLY FURRED, FRESH FROM THE BACK GARDEN."

1 Star from George Takei, who "hates to split hares" but who finds that: "First of all, it is NOT at all as easy as it looks in that [Game of Thrones] scene. Meera and Osha made it look so simple. But both Brad and I pulling together couldn't get that damn skin off. The rabbit wound up looking more like Theon Greyjoy's finger than a rabbit."

4. Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable

Buy it Amazon

Amazon says: "Get the purest digital audio you've ever experienced from multi-channel DVD and CD playback through your Denon home theater receiver with the AK-DL1 dedicated cable."

3 Stars from George Takei, who found this cable required all his Star Fleet training to use: "The minute I plugged this cable in, I knew something was amiss. The first evidence? The small wormhole that appeared in our living room, right next to our holstein cowhide recliner. Peering into it I could discern the snarling face of a Ferengi, likely somewhere out in the Gamma quadrant."

5. The 2009-2014 Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats in Greater China

Buy it Amazon

Amazon says (cryptically): "The latent demand for wood toilet seats in Greater China is not actual or historic sales. Nor is latent demand future sales. In fact, latent demand can be either lower or higher than actual sales if a market is inefficient (i.e., not representative of relatively competitive levels)."

5 Stars from George Takei, who hopes to release an audio-book version: "Sure, the title and the first few hundred pages may seem off-putting. 'What the f*@k is this?' Brad demanded, just 20 pages in. 'It's like some kind of terrible grad school thesis.'

"But right around page 375, the OFWTSIGC (2009-14) becomes a white-knuckled, roller coaster of emotions--the sort we expect from world class thrillers. Indeed, just when you think the author has exhausted his dear readers, after what seems an unimaginably methodical survey of mainland China's wood toilet seat projections, he reminds us, ever so artfully, about GREATER China."

6. Accoutrements Yodelling Pickle

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "Great gift for the person who has everything except a yodelling pickle."

1 Star from George Takei, who advises that you stick with your current bong: "I tried for hours to figure out how to pry off the lid so I could load it properly, but no go. Then the thing started yodeling at me, and I thought, 'Well, no more from that dispensary.'"

7. UFO-02 Detector, magnetometer interfaced with micro controller for detecting magnetic anomalies.

Buy it Amazon

Amazon says: "The real question is whether UFO's are interstellar vehicles visiting Earth? Most UFO sightings can be classified as misidentified aircraft, planets or other aerial phenomena, but not all of them."

5 Stars from George Takei, who ended up having his own close encounter: "When I came to, Brad was sound asleep in his tin foil hat, the UFO-02 detector was gone, and, sure enough, all of my Splenda had been replaced with little, brown raw sugar packets. When I tried to tell Brad about Leonardo/Dumbledore and The Message, he rolled over away from me, grumbling that I shouldn't eat so much ice cream or any dairy product before bed."

8. Deer Rear with Bottle Opener

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon Says: "[G]iving new meaning to the term 'the business end'!"

5 Stars from George Takei, who makes even more puns: "Deer friends: Looking for the perfect 'hunting lodge' accessory? No ifs, ands or butts, this is a staggering find. As any John Doe could tell you, mount this baby on your wall and BAMBI! Instant party. Now when guests ask me to open their beers, I just say 'Go buck yourself.'"

9. A-HOLE REPELLENT ... THE ULTIMATE GAG GIFT

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "PRODUCT IS A FUNNY GAG AND DOES NOT CONTAIN ANY CONTENT!"

4 Stars from George Takei, who found it worked well against bigoted politicians: "For example, the last time Senator Rick Santorum was shouting Bible verses through my bedroom window, I merely sauntered over, withdrew the can from my nightie, and held it up at eye-level. 'What is THAT?!' he bellowed. 'A&@hole repellant,' I said, calmly displaying the clearly marked label. 'Don't worry, it won't kill you. I've got it set to STUN-NING!!!!'"

10. Star Trek Magnetic Spock and Captain Kirk Salt and Pepper Shaker Set

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "High quality."

3 Stars from George Takei, who found these "too realistic": "After Brad got me this set, I realized that they were a bit TOO true to life. The Kirk shaker kept wandering off in search of 'lady shakers,' insisting his salt crystals were real dilithium. I'd have recommended this as a great Father's Day gift, but I noticed over time that the body of the shaker droops, and the uniform now seems, well, a bit snug. I also was disappointed to learn that the hair piece does NOT come off as expected. One star off my marks for that."

11. Passion Natural Water-Based Lubricant - 55 Gallon

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "If you are looking for a simply jaw-dropping amount of lube, Passion Natural Water-Based Lubricant is ready to get the fun started with this 55 gallon drum!"

3 Stars from George Takei, whose home-test went awry: "Now, how to spray the lube on the excited on-lookers? Why, by water pump gun, of course. To test out our delivery mechanism, we purchased a drum for our back yard and set up a slip and slide. I had Brad charge toward me down the slide, and I fired at will. It helped to imagine he was a Klingon Bird of Prey: Target that explosion and FIRE.

"What I didn't expect was that Brad's forward momentum would cause him to crash into me, upending the entire drum along with us. Utter chaos. Our unfortunate cats, who had come out to judge our activities as cats will, were caught in the deluge. Looking like drowned rats, they howled and sped around the yard in hysterical circles, then tried for ten minutes to climb a tree."

12. Horse Head Mask

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "Awesome conversation piece."

4 Stars from George Takei, who takes the opportunity to pun: "I purchased this mane-ly for anonymity, but instead it was a night-mare that saddled me with un-bridled panic.

"At a recent Comic Con, I donned the mask wearing my best track suit, jockeying for a simple laugh: 'What do gay horses eat?' I queried, eager to bray 'Heeeeeyyyy!!' Comic gold, friends, I know.

"But the neigh-sayers came unglued. 'No! You're George Takei! I know that voice!'

"Now, it doesn't take a gallop poll to know what happened next. I hoofed it out of there with herds of fans riding my ass, shouting till they, too, were...horse."

13. F500 American Flag Pants

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "These Flag Pants are cut with the same roomy thigh area and sharply tapered ankle cuffs which make them great gym pants and for casual wear as well."

5 Stars from George Takei, who avoided internment with this ostentatious display of patriotism: "I've often wondered, though, whether things would have been different if we'd simply been given a chance to demonstrate our loyalty.

"That's why when I go jogging around Hollywood, I always put on my BEST FORM AMERICAN FLAG PANTS while belting out a hearty 'God Bless 'Murica' for all the passers-by. So moved are the myriad witnesses to my overt and unabashed patriotism that they stare, mouths agape, overcome with, well, something, as I fist pump the air with an enthusiastic 'USA, USA!', the soundtrack to Rocky blaring from our car stereo as Brad urges me on and hands me another Ensure to slug. Sly Stallone, eat your heart out."

14. Canned Unicorn Meat

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "The bottom of the tin is easily removable to gain access to the mini dead unicorn inside. No can opener needed!"

2 Stars from George Takei, who thought it tasted like SPAM: "Unfortunately, I found this unicorn meat brand to be quite similar to spam, both in texture and blandness. I'd been hoping for that zestier kick that comes from the rump cuts of other mythical and fantastical creatures, such as griffins or centaurs (for the latter, serve only the back half of the creature with guests, or it gets awkward)."

15. BACON shaped themed Adhesive Bandages

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "Treat your minor cuts, scrapes and scratches with the incredible healing power of meat."

5 Stars from George Takei, who can't help punning: "Not to pork fun at an injury, but nothing strips the pain away like meating friends out dressed like this. 'That's sow wrong, George!' they squeal. But fat chance they let such a pig idea go. In fact, they often rip it off quickly—after giving me the cold shoulder."

16. Schrodinger's Cat Executive Decision Maker

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "With this Schrodinger's Cat Executive Decision Maker, just ask the cat a yes or no question, slide open the door to watch the cat magically fluxing between life and death."

5 Stars from George Takei, who imagines a conversation with a coworker: "'Hang on, let me consult Schrodinger's Cat Executive Box for that answer. Aha! See? It says the answer is both yes, and no. That is, right now, knowing nothing other than your question, the answer could be either yes or no. But when we actually get to that point, we'll know whether it actually was yes, or no.'

"'But that box always gives that answer.'

"'So does quantum physics, and no one is arguing with that.'"

17. Pickle Lip Balm Dill Flavored Scented Novelty Gag Prank Present

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "Much better than a boring old lip balm."

2 Stars from George Takei, whose husband didn't appreciate it: "Apparently, the taste wasn't kosher for Brad, who can be a sour puss, even when in the balm of your hand. So you might want to pickle little more carefully, and give your spouse more than lip service. Now I just say there's a pickle in my pocket and I'm happy to see him. Too cuke for words."

18. Inflatable Unicorn Horn for Cats

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "Your cat makes a show of being regal and in control, but you could turn all that around with this Inflatable Unicorn Horn for Cats."

1 Star from George Takei, who did not appreciate his three cats gaining mystical powers: "Soon things began to happen. Inexplicable things. The neighbor's dog was found immobilized, trussed-up with some indeterminate golden binding, a warning sign scrawled above him, 'Do not crosses the THREE.' A heretofore undiscovered hotspring bubbled up from beneath our yard and now transverses our property. Our clothes began to emerge from the dryer already pressed and folded, and the vet's office mysteriously called to confirm we had intended to cancel their next appointments. But we had not....

'"And the expenses! The THREE demand much for their rule. They turn their heads in disdain at Meow Mix. Only skittles will do, individually unwrapped and separated by flavor. Harrods of London shipped three gold-plated water bowls, charged to 'Mssrs George and Bwad Takei.' And only yesterday we received a note, with perfect penmanship, requesting that 'henceforth' all water served in said gold-plated bowls should be of an imported varietal, well-chilled, and garnished with a 'just a spwig' of the freshest catnip."

19. Air Swimmer Flying Shark

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "Requires helium to float—can be reinflated over and over."

5 Stars from George Takei, who find this perfect for pranking Sharknado-fan Brad: "I excused myself, claiming I needed to go 'visit nature' before turning in. When I was just out of sight, I ducked behind our tool shed and grabbed the AIR SWIMMER remote controls. To add to the ruse, I used my Bluetooth enabled smartphone to play the theme from Jaws on the jambox I'd hidden inside the tent.

"Da-dum.

"The harmonica playing stopped. 'George?' Brad called out, standing slowly up and wiping some sticky marshmellow from his chin.

"Da-dum, Da-dum

"It was a low, unmistakable rumbling, as if from the depth of the darkest ocean. Brad's flashlight was out, scanning the tree-tops. Preposterous indeed! At just the right moment, I maneuvered the Air Swimmer into the clearing.

"Da-da-dum!"

20. Squirrel Underpants

Buy it on Amazon

Amazon says: "Standard white cotton jockey-type drawer. One size fits most squirrels."

3 Stars from George Takei, who does not recommend them for gay hamsters: "We thought our friend's hamster Frederick (he prefers the German Frederick, definitely NOT Fred or, gasp, "Freddy") would appreciate this gift, as he often complains that 'hees business' is always on display, especially as he frolics in his wheel. But when we presented the 'Accoutrements Squirrel Underpants' to Frederick on his birthday, his disappointment was palpable. 'Vell zen,' he quipped crisply, as German hamsters so often do. 'Ve are polite and must still appreciate da gesture, no?' Frederick clearly expected something with a bit more 'oomph.'"

All photos courtesy of Amazon.com. All illustrations courtesy of iStock. 


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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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iStock
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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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