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3D Printed Rats Make For Cheaper and More Ethical Dissections

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Rats, one can only assume, are big fans of Maryland couple Bart Taylor and Tara Whittle. The pair have launched a new startup that is hoping to eliminate the need for real rats to be sacrificed in the name of scientific education.

It all started when Taylor, a necropsy technician, bought a PrintrBot 3D printer. At first, the possibilities were so vast he didn't know what to print; he began with plastic toys for his toddler daughter. But he wanted something more useful. His wildlife biologist wife suggested he try to print animal models, and it all clicked.

In high school, Taylor had hated the part of biology class where he had to dissect the rats. The smell was noxious, the chemicals irritating, and it didn't even work—he ended up failing the anatomy test and feeling awful for the rat's wasted death. So he thought that if he could print accurate 3D models, it would eliminate many of the ethical and comfort issues surrounding classic dissections.

“We can print an animal and structure the layers so that they feel like real tissue, and make a model a person could dissect without ever having to wear gloves, use sharp tools or kill an animal,” Taylor told Smithsonian.com. Last month, he and his wife founded NecropSynth to put this idea into practice.

It's estimated that high school classrooms use 6 to 12 million rat specimens for dissections each year. In addition to this vast waste of animal life, the lessons are expensive. While it costs anywhere from $8 to $12 per rat from a biological supply company, NecropSynth estimates each of their printed rats—their prototype is called the SynthDawley, a nod to the Sprague Dawley rat used in most labs—could cost as little as $2 to $3. What's more, they're planning on making the schematics for the models free for download so anyone with a 3D printer can make their own.

“A few people just couldn’t believe it. We’re not looking to sell this,” Whittle said of his plan at the National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C.

Right now, the model is still in the works. The couple is in the process of figuring out how to print "bones" and "muscle" of different material simultaneously and make the various internal systems hollow and translucent so they could be highlighted one at a time with a colored gel. But science teachers at the National Maker Faire were excited for the potential.

"Everyone loved our idea," Whittle said. "They all recognized the issues of budgeting and safety and non-standard models being used in classrooms."

[h/t treehugger]

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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