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The Nasal Ranger Is a Real-Life Smell-O-Scope

It was easy to laugh at Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth when he unveiled the Smell-O-Scope. What use could there possibly be for a device that detects and measures odors?

As it turns out (in the cartoon and in real life) the Smell-O-Scope is a pretty handy tool. But the Professor didn’t invent it; smell detectors, called olfactometers, have been around since the late 1960s.

The most popular olfactometer on the market today is the delightfully named Nasal Ranger. The telescope-shaped meter is fitted with a small mask at one end and a dial at the other. Inquiring sniffers put their nose into the mask and inhale, then use the dial to determine the strength of the odor.

The Nasal Ranger may look silly, but its users are deadly serious. Environmental health departments, wastewater treatment plants, landfill managers, and even police departments whip out the Nasal Ranger when things start to stink. Measuring the intensity of an odor can help locate the source of the problem [PDF]—or identify who’s breaking the law.

Some time after marijuana was legalized in Colorado, state officials realized they’d have to create some new ground rules. Residents had begun complaining about the pall of pungent pot smoke that hung in residential areas and near grow facilities, so the city of Denver passed an ordinance [PDF] banning intense marijuana odors. Any smell measuring more than 7/1 dilutions to threshold on the Nasal Ranger would be considered a nuisance, and the people responsible would be fined.

To enforce this ban, investigators armed with Nasal Rangers patrol the city, responding to smell complaints, of which there are plenty. The olfactometers are a welcome sight to some. To others, it’s something of a joke. The pot culture magazine High Times asked two of its correspondents to test-drive a Nasal Ranger. Unsurprisingly, they used it to get high.

Smell is a vastly underrated component of our everyday experience. St. Croix Sensory, the Minnesota-based company that makes the Nasal Ranger, offers a surprising menu of sniff-enhancing experiences. There’s the Nasal Ranger and scent-tracking software, of course, but you can get your products, materials, or environment tested for smells; enroll in Odor School; or even add “smell-scapes” to your art installation or theatrical production.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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