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    The State of Computer Vision Research

    At the recent TED conference, computer vision expert Fei-Fei Li explains how she and the researchers at the Stanford Computer Vision Lab are developing ways to teach computers visual perception by studying human vision. Her breakthrough a decade ago: instead of simply improving object recognition algorithms, her team increased the quantity and quality of input fed to the program to the tune of 15 million photos.

    Biomimetics: Studying the Striking Power of the Mantis Shrimp

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    Not many folks would look at a shrimp and call it the “crown jewel” of their research, but that’s exactly how David Kisailus refers to the Mantis shrimp, a crustacean that’s famous for its ability to, well, punch stuff to death. The unique properties of the animal’s boxing glove-like claw make it the perfect subject for unraveling the complex problem of impact resistance.

    Kisailus, who runs UC Riverside's Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab, explains: “The organism is smacking with more than 500 newtons of force and it’s only 4 inches long. It’s accelerating underwater faster than a 22 caliber bullet. It’s one of the fastest striking organisms on the planet. It impacts thousands of times. How can it do that and resist failure? That’s why we started studying it.”

    The mantis shrimp isn’t actually a shrimp, it’s actually a crustacean that earned its name from its shrimp-like body. The non-shrimp evolved 400 million years ago as a spear fisherman. It would hunt by shooting barbed spears at its soft-bodied prey. But its prey eventually evolved to avoid the dangers of the pointy killing method by growing shells and exoskeletons. So the Mantis shrimp had to evolve too, splitting off into a group that could use its elbow to smash open the prey that its cousins couldn’t spear. Though some still spear, the clubbing verson’s boxing glove (which still has a vestigial barb at the end) is made up of a series of highly complex and organized internal parts.

    Photo credit: Flickr user wwarby via Creative Commons.

    “It’s not your standard biological composite, which has just one component,” says Kisailus of why he is studying the material makeup of the shrimp’s punching claw. “Within the club are three separate regions and each has its own function.”

    9 "Lost" Inventions That Could Come In Handy Today

    The march of progress is fairly linear – scientific discoveries build on each other and life on Earth slowly gets better, or at least easier. But sometimes there are hiccups in this timeline. One thing that’s happened more than we like to admit is inventions and discoveries simply being lost, whether taken to the grave by their inventors or otherwise vanished to the mists of time. Today, we spotlight nine lost inventions that we’d really like to see rediscovered.

    Strange Things Buried In Time Capsules

    The experience of opening up a time capsule is unreal – it’s like your ancestors are reaching forward from the past to share what was really important to them. But, as more and more capsules are opened, we’re starting to find that what was important was also really weird. Here are some bizarre things that we thought were worth sharing with the future.

    In Brief: Examining the Woodward Effect

    Have you heard of the Woodward Effect? It's a decades-old theory for a method of generating thrust without expending mass--basically limitless propulsion without the need to refuel. It's no wonder that this concept has been used to fuel theoretical engine designs for spacecraft. Steady acceleration without the need for propellants sounds too good to be true, so BoingBoing visited the office and laboratory of Dr. James Woodward to learn about his theory and see an application of it in an experimental thruster. Real-world science is sometimes stranger and more awesome than fiction.

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    In Brief: The Man Who Can hear Wi-Fi

    I'm deeply fascinated in the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia: the effect of experiencing one sense when another is being activated (eg. seeing colors in words or hearing music in colors). Equally interesting are the people who artificially augment their senses to simulate that effect. Artist Neil Harbisson is a notable artificial synesthete who implanted an antenna into his skull so he could perceive wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. He's also the world's first recognized cyborg. New Scientist has a story written by another artificial synesthete, Frank Swain, who built a system for converting the characteristics of wireless networks into sound.

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    In Brief: Why Do Most Pencil Erasers Suck?

    The Atlantic's technology blog recently tackled a question that I'm sure we've all thought about at some point--especially those of us who've taken Scantron tests in secondary school: why do pencil erasers suck? The little nubs we're familiar with started appearing on the end of graphite pencils in the US some 250 years ago, but the materials they've been made of have changed over the years. They used to be made of rubber, but were shifted to plastic polymers to lower cost. Those thermoplastics and synthetics just don't have the same abrasive quality of real rubber to scrape lead off paper. I was also surprised to learn that the eraser-tipped pencil is largely a US phenomenon. International readers--what did your school pencils look like?

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    In Brief: Why Scratching an Itch Makes It Worse

    Through a series of experiments with mice, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine think they have figured out why people scratch an itch to the point of bleeding. According to Dr. Zhou-Feng Chen, who is actually the director of the school's Center for the Study of Itch (seriously!), the cause of neural crosstalk and the brain's release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. We scratch itches because the pain induced by scratching inhibits the itch, but the serotonin released to control the pain makes more scratching required to keep soothing the itch. It's a feedback loop that our brains are helpless to resist.

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    The Scientific Origins Of Monsters And Mythical Creatures

    Monsters aren’t real, right? As Halloween draws nearer, you might not be so sure – especially after you read this piece. Some of the most famous monsters of all time are actually drawn from real-life creatures and events. Let’s dig up some graves and find out where these creeps came from.

    In Brief: Death Valley's Sailing Stones Mystery Solved

    The mystery of Death Valley's famous moving stones has finally been solved. For almost a century, geologists have been puzzled by the movement of stoves along a dry lake bed called Racetrack Playa in the California desert. The moving stones, which weigh up to 700 pounds, travelled up to 3000 feet in their journey, seemingly without any human or animal assistance. To study their movements, geologists in 2011 tagged 15 rocks with GPS loggers and time-lapse cameras, and even buried magnetic triggers beneath some to test popular theories. They found the perfect combination of light wind and layer of thin ice on the lake bed was the cause of the movement. In the video below, Scripps Oceanography paleooceanographer Richard Norris describes the discovery.

    In Brief: The Science of Designing Slot Machines

    Among all the artifice and constructs in a Las Vegas casino, none may be more engineered to entrance visitors and suck their wallets dry than the venerable slot machine. The evolution of the one-armed bandit is the topic of this Vox feature, which chronicles the many innovations and psychological tricks that slow machine designers employ to keep players in those ergonomic stools. These games are another example of activities that tap into psychological "flow"--even the architecture of the casino floor is designed to make the most persistent players feel like they're holed up in a private nook, free from the outside world. It's pretty scary stuff. MIT cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull, who was interviewed for Vox's report, has written a book about the ongoing manipulation of human-[slot]-machine interaction, and was previously featured in this 2013 episode of 99 Percent Invisible.

    10 Dirty Secrets Of Big Cruise Ships

    Cruises are popular options for vacationers who like to get rid of the stress and uncertainty of traveling. But all’s not well below-decks on these massive cruise ships. Today, we’ll expose ten dirty secrets of the big cruise ships.

    The Science and Mysteries of Booze

    We sit down with Adam Rogers, author of the book Proof: The Science of Booze, to discuss the what modern science and ancient history have to teach us about alcohol and humanity's complicated relationship with it. Grab a refreshing beverage and join us for a spirited conversation about society's favorite poison.

    The Case for Leaving Shipwrecks at the Bottom of the Ocean

    For over 500 year historians have wondered: where in the world is Christopher Columbus' lost ship? The Santa Maria was the largest of three ships to sail across the Atlantic on Columbus' first voyage, but the only one to sink.

    In May, a well-known undersea explorer by the name of Barry Clifford announced he may have found the missing ship off the coast of Haiti. It's there that records say the Santa Maria hit reef and met its watery end. But if that turns out to be the case, don't expect to see the Santa Maria's salvaged remains on display in a museum anytime soon. Removing a wreck from the ocean floor – particularly a very old wreck such as this – is often the last thing that archaeologists and historians want to do.

    An artist's interpretation of the grounding of the Santa Maria.

    In 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a document with the aim of strengthening the protection of so-called underwater cultural heritage sites – environments that have traces of human existence with cultural, historical or archaeological character, and have remained in water for at least 100 years.

    As far as wrecks are concerned, "The preservation in situ of underwater cultural heritage shall be considered as the first option before allowing or engaging in any activities directed at this heritage," the document states. The short version is that leaving the ship and its artifacts where they were found – in situ – might actually do more to preserve and conserve the site than raising them from the water. But there are and have been exceptions.

    "The principle is that, yes, you can still recover things if they're threatened," says Marc-André Bernier, chief underwater archaeologist for the government agency Parks Canada. "If there is a research question that you can only answer by excavation then it's justified. But the principle is that if it's somewhere, it has a sense in that place, so if you can, you should try to leave it there."

    In other words, context is important. And once you excavate a shipwreck, you lose details about its history and fate. "The site or the shipwreck has a story to tell. And when you excavate it's like reading a book, which is the story of a ship. But the pages disappear as you read them," Bernier says. "And if you don't take notes and record everything, you're only relying on your memory."

    But leaving a shipwreck in situ can sometimes be just as damaging as recovering the remains.

    10 Awesome Museums Not Open To The Public

    Most museums out there you can get in for a couple bucks (or even free), but the ten repositories of knowledge in this list are a little trickier. They’re museums that close their doors to average Joes like you and I, only allowing entrance to a lucky few. Full of secrets and mysteries, these are 10 awesome museums not open to the public.

    Regenerating Plastic Grows Back After Damage

    "Professor Scott White discusses the research breakthrough that allows [damaged] plastic to not only heal, but truly regenerate. Self-healing materials have been around for about a decade. But they have never been able to heal damage much larger than the width of a human hair. Now, White and his colleagues Jeff Moore and Nancy Sottos have developed plastic that can regenerate damage as large as a bullet hole. The plastic regenerates when two chemical channels in the material mix at a damaged area. This reaction forms a gel which fills in the hole and eventually hardens, similar to blood clotting in a wound."

    The Weirdest Things The US Government Keeps Underground

    If you want to keep something safe, burying it deep in the ground is a pretty solid choice. The brain trust in Washington knows this, and they’ve commandeered many different caves and underground facilities around the Continental United States. Today, we’ll tour these subterranean bunkers and see what weirdness lies beneath our feet.

    Tested: Grinding Coffee at 2000 Frames Per Second

    We're testing high-speed cameras this week, and to kick things off, here's a test of the Edgertronic camera, shooting coffee being ground at 2000 frames per second. That turns a ten-second clip into 10 minutes of awesome slow-mo goodness. So grab a cup of coffee, put on your favorite adult contemporary album, and enjoy action.

    In Brief: Uploading Our Brains

    The trailer for Wally Pfister's upcoming movie, Transcendence, worries me. It's not just because despite a prestigious cast of Christopher Nolan collaborators (Pfister was Nolan's cinematographer for years and this is directorial debut), the film looks pretty derivative. It's because of how the film portrays and sensationalizes the idea of artificial intelligence singularity, a concept popularized by current Google engineering director and A.I pioneer Ray Kurzweil. Since 2008, Kurzweil's notion of a computing singularity has been creeping into the public consciousness, with a high-profile Hollywood movie being a potential tipping point for awareness. It either becomes something the public starts to take seriously or brushes off as science-fiction fantasy. The former can be a slippery slope to controversy. But the concept of uploading our consciousness is not new at all, even in pop culture. Star Trek has explored the idea numerous times, notably in the original series episode The Ultimate Computer. The idea has its own TV Tropes page. In real life, neuroscientists are investigating the idea of a "Connectome"--a complete mapping of a single brain's synaptic connections. A snapshot of the brain, if you will. There's even a startup that wants to develop a non-invasive and cost-effective procedure to do it, lowering its cost to that of gene mapping. This Motherboard interview explores some of those concepts with Brain Backups' founder. One interesting assertion: mapping all the connections in a single brain would take between 1,000 and 10,000 terabytes of storage. Seems appropriate for the Petabyte age.

    Collapsing Soda Can at 4500 FPS

    Youtuber Grant Thompson, who runs the King of Random channel, demonstrates a soda can immediately collapsing on contact with ice water. The trick is that the soda can was filled with a small amount of boiling-water-turned-steam, which cools so fast when the can hits the ice that it creates a vacuum that crushes the can. It's a neat demo, which also makes a good time to remind you that we're soliciting ideas for high-speed video ideas as well to test a new high-speed camera. Post what you'd like to see filmed at high-speed (~1000fps) in the comments below!