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ThinkGeek

Torment Your Friends With These 11 April Fools' Day Items

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ThinkGeek

April Fools' Day is every gullible person's least favorite holiday. Turn your friends into enemies with these devious items.

1. PHANTOM KEYSTROKER; $10

As if work days aren't hard enough, now your co-workers are going to have to deal with a faulty keyboard—or are they? This USB drive has an unassuming exterior, but it secretly messes with whatever computer it's plugged into. The dials and switches let you decide what new problems will appear: caps lock turning on and off, random mouse movements, strange words and phrases getting typed out, and more. Some things it won't do: Click the mouse button or hit delete.

Find it: ThinkGeek

2. SUBVERSIVE PEN SET; $7

These pens all come from fake, humorous locations like "Howie's House of Hair" and "Shecky the Clown." The businesses might not be real, but your victim's confusion will be.

Find it: Amazon

3. JOKE GOLF BALLS; $10

Lighten up a tense game of golf with a ball that explodes on impact. This four-pack includes the exploding ball, one that ejects a long ribbon, another that jumps when you try to putt it, and one that turns into a watery mist. (On second thought, this might make your fellow players even more frustrated.)

Find it: Spencer's

4. YETI MEAT; $10

Skip that can of Spam and grab a Himalayan delicacy—Yeti meat! Modeled like many other meat cans, this square tin is filled with the foot of the mythical beast that has been evading cryptozoologists for years. Full disclosure—the foot inside is plush, so make sure no one tries to actually eat it.

Find it: ThinkGeek

5. BEAN BOOZLED JELLY BEANS; $7

You know the frustration of trying to figure out if a jelly bean is cherry or cinnamon? That struggle is about to get way worse when you're trying to determine if a green bean is flavored like lime or lawn clippings. These Bean Boozled beans come with 10 "good" flavors and 10 "bad" flavors that match in color. It's up to chance whether the eater will get coconut or baby wipes.

Find it: Amazon

6. JALAPENO COTTON CANDY; $6

In the same vein as terrible tasting jelly beans, you can also surprise your friends with some unexpectedly spicy cotton candy. No one expects the fluffy sugar to have a bite, but this special batch is flavored with jalapeños. The 1-ounce tub offers plenty of hot cotton candy to enjoy once you get used to the unusual sweet and spicy taste.

Find it: Perpetual Kid

7. BABY BEER; $10-$12

This isn't really beer: The bottle is just for show and can hold any baby-friendly beverage you would like. The BPA free, 10 ounce bottle comes in two styles: Lil' Lager and Baby Cerveza. Just don't let them drink and drive their Cozy Coupe.

Find it: Amazon

8. UNENDING THANK YOU CARD; $10

The best way to say "I Love You" is with a card that never shuts up. This infuriating card plays annoying music non-stop, forcing the recipient to tear up the card. It's water-resistant and pushing the button only makes the music grow louder, so good luck.

Find it: ThinkGeek

9. MINOR MIRACLE MUG; $12

After enjoying a nice cup of coffee, drinkers will be surprised to find an image of the Virgin Mary at the bottom of their mug. Before he or she starts a bidding war on eBay, kindly let your victim know the porcelain mug is just a ruse.

Find it: Amazon

10. FROZEN SMILES; $7

This ice tray recreates frozen dentures that can bob in your water glass. The food-safe synthetic rubber tray makes two pairs of false teeth for double the trouble.

Find it: Amazon

11. FEISTY PETS; $20

You might want to think twice before giving one of these stuffed animals to a kid. The doe-eyed creatures look nice—until a squeeze of the noggin reveals them as blood-thirsty animals with sharp teeth. The scary animal line-up includes a cat, monkey, bear, dog, unicorn, guinea pig, polar bear, or lion.

Find it: Amazon

For more pranks, check out last year's list.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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