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The Sandman Cometh: Famous Narcoleptics

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One of the best-known sleep disorders is narcolepsy, a serious medical condition that causes sufferers to be suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of fatigue. But narcolepsy symptoms also include abnormal episodes of "dreaming sleep," which are similar to hallucinations, and attacks of "cataplexy," in which a person loses control of certain muscles for a few seconds at a time.

One in every 2,000 Americans has narcolepsy. Here are a two you may have heard of.

Believe it or not, Harriet Tubman was a narcoleptic. The African-American abolitionist who freed hundreds of slaves in pre-Civil War America is famous for her strength of will, but less known for her weakness for sleep. As a 12-year-old girl in Maryland, Tubman received a serious blow to the head from her slave master. She never fully recovered, and the injury was said to cause her intermittent bouts of narcolepsy from which she suffered for the rest of her life.

ickes.jpgPresident Clinton's former deputy chief of staff, Harold Ickes, was a long-time friend of Clinton, but around the White House, he was known as a strange bird. During staff meetings, he stood in the corner and took notes, rather than sitting around the table. But Ickes wasn't being rude; he was trying to keep from falling asleep. Ickes started experiencing symptoms of narcolepsy at age 25 when he entered Columbia University Law School. To help keep himself awake, he took obscene amounts of Dexedrine—about 60 milligrams a day, a normal dosage being around 5 milligrams.

But if Ickes was bitter about his sleep disorder, he certainly couldn't blame it on his genes. Ickes' father, Harold LeClair Ickes, was also an advisor to a president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a member of his cabinet. But unlike the younger Ickes, Harold LeClair was a life-long insomniac, never known to get more than three or four hours at a time.

More on sleep: Sleeping On The Job, Five Disorders That Make For Scary Sleeping, Should You Wake A Sleepwalker?

["The Sandman Cometh" was originally printed in mental_floss magazine, Volume 3, Issue 1.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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