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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Wax

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What do sperm whales, lipstick, and gummy bears have in common? They all contain wax. Read on to find out what wax is, what it’s done for you lately, and where exactly earwax fits in to the picture.

What Is Wax, Anyway?

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines wax as any of a class of pliable substances of animal, plant, mineral, or synthetic origin that differ from fats in being less greasy, harder, and more brittle and in containing principally compounds of high molecular weight. 

Like paraffin, which is a byproduct of petroleum refinement, many waxes are manmade—but a surprising waxy smorgasbord also appears in the natural world. We’ve all been told to mind our beeswax, which worker bees secrete from glands on their bellies, but what about our sheep wax? Lanolin—the oil that makes sheep wool so soft—is technically also a wax.

And then there’s whale wax. The head cavities of sperm whales are filled with a wax called spermaceti. Scientists aren’t sure what the wax does, exactly, but they think it may help with buoyancy or echolocation. Early seamen mistook the head wax for semen, which is how the sperm whale got its malapropic name.

But the animal kingdom doesn’t have a monopoly on waxes. The carnauba palm and the candelilla plant both produce wax to help their leaves retain moisture in the heat, and the stem of the sugarcane plant is swaddled in a thin layer of wax. Carnauba wax is the hardest natural wax and is known as the “Queen of Waxes” (what an honor), but all three varieties are harvested on a grand scale, processed, and applied to some very unlikely targets. 

How Is Wax Used?

The applications of our friend Wax are nearly endless, and range from the obvious—candles, crayons, and cars—to the downright sneaky. Eagle-eyed consumers can find wax in…

Cosmetics. Going far beyond the basic bikini wax, beauty products have embraced the flexibility, shine, and durability that wax has to offer. Paraffin, beeswax, carnauba wax, lanolin, and even spermaceti are added to lipstick, mascara, deodorant, eye shadow, eye pencils, skin creams, shaving cream, make-up removers, and shampoo.

Drugs. Just a coat of carnauba makes the medicine go down—drug manufacturers spray tablets with a thin coat of wax to make the pills easier to swallow.

Fruit. Did you really think apples were naturally that shiny? Did you think pears just last for months in nature? Much of the conventionally grown produce you’ll find in the grocery store has been shellacked with food-grade wax to keep it fresh and make it pretty. (In small quantities, the wax doesn’t do any harm to the human digestive system, but if you’re freaked out by polished fruit, the wax is easy enough to wash off.) For those who are curious: Yes, waxed fruit is still Kosher.

Sugary Snacks. Remember that time you accidentally bit off a piece of those wax lips you were wearing and wondered if it was okay to swallow it? Rest easy—you’ve probably eaten more wax than you’ll ever know. Edible waxes lend gloss and staying power to fruit snacks, chocolate chips, soft drinks, gummy bears, Altoids, Tic Tacs, Skittles, chewing gum, donuts, juice, cake frosting … you get the point.

Where Does Earwax Fit In?

Earwax, tragically, is not really a wax at all, but a water-soluble mixture of ear oils, hair, and dead skin (sorry—you weren’t eating, were you?) that helps protect our tender inner ears from damage and infection. The technical term for this ear gunk is “cerumen,” from the Latin word for “wax,” so at least it’s not like we’re the first ones to make that mistake. 

As gross as it might seem, earwax is supposed to be there, and doctors advise against cleaning it out yourself. They know you won’t listen. 

What Does Your Earwax Say About You?

It may not be wax, but cerumen still has a lot to offer. In recent years, scientists have discovered that the type of earwax you have—the wet, yellow-brown kind or the dry white kind—seems to be determined by your ethnicity. People with roots in China, Japan, and Korea are far more likely to have dry white earwax than folks from other parts of the world.

Earwax type may also be a predictor of disease. In 2007, a Japanese team discovered that a gene responsible for breast cancer can also cause super-smelly armpits and goopy wet earwax. Don’t be too worried if you’ve got the stinky-pits-sticky-ears combo, though—the trifecta isn’t a sure bet. “At this point the research is very early,” USC-LA’s Dr. Christy Russell told WebMD, “and women should not be concerned.”

Other researchers see earwax as a time capsule, recording information like the rings of a tree. Since baleen whales do not use Q-tips, their earwax accumulates in their ear canals as they age. Scientists analyzing these massive earwax plugs can trace the rising and falling of stress hormones, pollutants, and other chemicals throughout the whale’s life, a gunky biography.

Fighting Fire with Earwax

One last little earwax nugget before we close: Cerumen, or cerumen flavor, anyway, can also be a punishment. Researchers at Penn State conducted an experiment in which volunteers—all women of color—conversed via Instant Messenger with a “racist” (actually a research assistant making intentionally offensive comments). After the conversation, the women were asked to choose which flavor of jellybean the offender would be given: cherry, lemon, earwax, or dirt. Volunteers who did not directly confront their conversation partner’s racist statements were far more likely to feed the offender earwax-flavored jellybeans. The experiment seems bizarre, but the world would be a very different place if every racist statement earned its speaker a talking-to or a mouthful of earwax. 

So be kind. Put the Q-Tip down. And wax on, dear readers. Wax off.

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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.