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Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Look Up! It's the Snow Moon Lunar Eclipse Comet Spectacular

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Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Last year it was all supermoons, all the time. This year it’s going to be eclipses. There’s the big one on August 21—start planning your trip now!—and leading up to it are a couple of smaller events, starting with a penumbral lunar eclipse tonight, and an annular solar eclipse later this month. The eclipse tomorrow night, February 10, will occur during a "Snow Moon," and if you stay up a little bit longer, you might even be able to spot a comet. In other words, if you’re looking for cheap date ideas for the last Friday before Valentine’s Day, you’ve come to the right place.

SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH THE SNOW MOON

Full moons have names. They survive largely through the pages of the Farmer’s Almanac, a 99-year-old annual best known for its weather predictions. You might recall the Hunter's Moon, or the Harvest Moon, and who could forget the Beaver Moon?

Tonight’s moon is called the Snow Moon, named by the American Indians for the obvious reason: February is the snowiest month. (This moon was also sometimes called the "Hunger Moon," for the same reason, and the "Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire Moon.") Generally speaking, you get only one full moon per month. In fact, the word "month" is derived from "moon," referring to a full cycle of its phases. Next month is the Worm Moon, because with the onset of spring, you have the wormiest month. And so on.

If you decide to have a moonlit picnic with your sweetheart, that kind of trivia is solid gold.

THE SOFTER SIDE OF A LUNAR ECLIPSE

So what of this eclipse business? You might notice also that the moon seems a little … off. I don’t want to get your hopes up here: You will not see a Pacman-like chomp taken out of the moon, nor any well-defined line that you can point at and say, "See that? That is the edge of the Earth’s shadow."

Penumbral eclipses are a bit subtler than that. What you’ll want to look for is a darker hue to pass across the lunar surface. That’s it, but it’s still really cool. What’s happening is this. Shadows have two elements: the umbra and the penumbra. The umbra is the darkest part of a shadow. (The red super harvest moon in 2015 was caused by the Moon passing into the umbra of the Earth’s shadow.) The penumbra is the much gentler, much blurrier shadow that surrounds the umbra. It’s the place where the light source (in this case the Sun) is partially blocked, but not entirely. That’s the part of the Earth’s shadow that the Moon will be passing through tonight. As long as you keep your expectations in check, you should enjoy the show.

(There’s also the antumbra, in which the object being shadowed is fully contained in the light source—we’ll talk more about that on February 26, when the Moon as seen from the Southern hemisphere will become a giant, terrifying ring of fire.)

If you live in North America, you can watch the penumbral eclipse on February 10 at precisely 7:43 p.m. EST.

THE TEAL COMET NEAR HERCULES

There will also be a comet out for your pre-Valentines Friday date night viewing pleasure. Its full name is Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, but its friends call it "45P." It will be visible around 3:00 a.m. EST. This particular comet visits us every five years, and tonight is its closest approach to Earth in its orbit. You’ll be gazing in the vicinity of the constellation Hercules, and looking specifically for a teal dot with a tail.

Realistically speaking, though, will you be able to see it? If the light pollution in your area is nil, and if your eyes are well adjusted, there’s a very slim chance you’ll be able to spot it with your naked eyes. I would not risk a disappointing end to a date night, however. After checking out the eclipse, head inside where it’s warm and go to Slooh. At 10:30 p.m. EST, astronomers will begin coverage of the comet, and use telescopes to give you a much better view than you’ll find in the backyard. If you have a fireplace, all the better for setting the mood. It is a Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire Moon, after all.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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