4 Odd Things David Bowie Taught Us About Space

Legendary rocker David Bowie died on January 10 after a long battle with cancer, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his latest album, Blackstar. And though his 40-plus-year career gave us characters ranging from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke (not to mention Jareth the Goblin King), one of the most enduring aspects of Bowie's music is his fascination with and reverence for space.


"Space Oddity" (1972) was Bowie's first hit, and not only did Major Tom tell us something of the melancholy nature of traveling in solitude and floating helplessly in space, he also reminded us that astronauts often deal with completely unappetizing food options and must compensate with pills (protein, in Tom's case). These days? Astronauts know why food tastes so bland—swelling of the nasal passages causes a constant feeling of congestion, which means that subtle food flavors don't come through. Those aboard the ISS frequently ask for spicier foods with added Sriracha or wasabi. But for the nutrients they can't get as easily up in the space station, like vitamins K and D, they supplement with pills.


Bowie's 1973 single "Life on Mars?" was ambiguous in its lyrics and seems to reflect on the existential hope that there is more to life than that which is on our planet. Forty years later, that's still up for debate. Recent findings such as glass and water hint that life existing on the red planet is possible, and the rover Curiosity is still sending back images and data. But odds of Curiosity spotting a life form as colorful or musical as Bowie remain low.


In 1996, Bowie reflected on extraterrestrial love in a heavier song, "Hallo Spaceboy," which he once referred to as sounding like "metal Doors." But his lyrics about moondust covering the spaceboy point to an actual problem—all of the dust covering the moon presents a complication for astronauts who may one day return. NASA pathologist Russell Kerschmann has explained that lunar dust is very similar to Earth's silica dust, which is often hazardous to construction workers. Luckily, MIT engineers have been working on a space tent that would help explorers keep dust at bay if NASA ever decides to return to the Moon.


Like so many basic activities, dancing in zero gravity can be much harder than on Earth. Though astronauts can pull off some sweet moves like slow-motion somersaults and never-ending spins that any ballerina would be jealous of, the idea of busting any quick, rhythmic moves is basically out of the question. But, as Bowie suggested when singing "girl, you move like water" in 2013, astronaut Mae Jemison has discussed how her childhood background as a dancer helped her with the physical requirements and coordination needed to navigate the tight quarters of a space shuttle.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
Original image

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]