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11 Brilliant Gifts for the Teacher in Your Life

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Few people play such an important role in young lives (and parents’ lives) as teachers. Whether they lead kindergarten or university classes, educators work tirelessly to serve their pupils—and don’t always get rewarded as well as they should. Give back this holiday season with gifts that are (mostly) classroom ready.

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1. A THANK YOU NOTE; FREE

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Sometimes the best things in life don’t cost anything at all. Let your favorite teacher know how much they’re appreciated with a hand-written note. Chances are, they don’t hear it enough.

2. ART OF CARAMEL X DIME 100; $50

This sweet and salty gift box includes four different flavors of caramel corn, like Kentucky Bourbon Black Pepper and Mayan Chile Chocolate. Each flavor is designed to accompany the bottle of wine included, the Bordeaux-style 2013 DIME 100 Meritage blend. Give it to one teacher who really needs a break, or split up the flavors between multiple teachers.

Find It: Winc

3. LIBRARY CARD TOTE BAG; $20

This cotton tote bag lets the wearer proclaim their love of reading and nostalgia for the analog catalog systems. It has a useful little pocket inside to keep keys or a cell phone accessible and it's perfect for carrying home heavy textbooks or lesson-plan binders.

Find It: Uncommon Goods

4. PERSONALIZED MOLESKINE NOTEBOOKS; $19 - $25 EACH

Taking down notes and making to-do lists can be a personal activity, and these notebooks reflect that. For an extra $5, they can be personalized with any text (up to 12 characters), giving you the opportunity to emboss them with a brief thank you note or the recipient’s name.

Find It: Moleskine

5. ALTER ECO SEA SALT TRUFFLES; $7

Sustainable, ethically sourced foodstuffs let you give delicious treats with no guilt. The dark chocolate in these gluten-free, organic truffles comes from Ecuador, and the sea salt from Guérande, France. They’re certified Fair Trade and are 90 percent cocoa.

Find It: Thrive

6. PERCY THE PENCIL PORCUPINE; $19

This porcupine-shaped pencil holder is both utilitarian and whimsical, letting your favorite educator show some desktop flair. It’s made from glazed clay and stands about 4 inches tall, with room to hold more than a dozen pencils.

Find It: Uncommon Goods

7. CLASSROOM SUPPLY PACK; $20 - $25

Some teachers need classroom supplies more than they need trinkets and holiday sweets. Amazon’s classroom supply pack bundles together basics like pencils, art paper, notebooks, facial tissue, hand sanitizer, and glue sticks. Even if your favorite educator doesn’t need a new pair of scissors for their classroom, one of their deserving students might.

Find It: Amazon

8. JOTBLOCK; $15

With so many subjects, schedules, and student names to keep in their heads, you could forgive a teacher for being a little absentminded. Jotblock is both a desk organizer and notebook pad in one, and includes two pens, gold paper clips, and binder clips, ending the scourge of having to hunt down a pen to take down that latest thought or phone number.

Find It: Uncommon Goods

9. JANE BAKES; $10

Not your typical holiday cookies: These treats from Jane Bakes are low in sugar and high in fiber—but don't taste like it—so you won’t be adding too many sweets to a teacher’s already full pile. The mason jar containers give the cookies a more elevated vibe than traditional boxes.

Find It: Jane Bakes

10. FUND A CLASSROOM PROJECT; PRICE VARIES

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If you really want to help out a classroom, give some cash to a local project on DonorsChoose.org, a site that allows schools and educators to crowdfund classroom projects. Help purchase computers or printers for the classroom, sound systems for dance classes, standard classroom materials, and more.

Find It: DonorsChoose.org

11. AMAZON GIFT CARD; PRICE VARIES

If you don’t know exactly what kind of supplies a classroom needs, leave it up to the teacher in question by giving an Amazon gift card. Whether they’re looking to fund an art project or just buy basic supplies for kids, they’ll be able to put the money to good use.

Find It: Amazon

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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