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THE Y-FILES, Part II: More Answers to Help Shut Your Kid Up!

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I keep my office like I keep my coffee: dark. So when the door creaked open, and the light streamed in, I knew it was trouble.The dame walked toward me and started firing off questions. She was the pushy sort, and she shot "˜em off rapid-fire: "Why's the sky blue? Why are tennis balls fuzzy? Why do llamas spit? Why? Why? Why?" The gal was merciless, and she didn't take "go ask mom" for an answer. This was a four-year-old who needed explanations, and she needed "˜em fast. I looked over my shoulder, took a long swig of courage, then opened the drawer. I could see it was time to crack open this case.

THE WHY FILES

WHY DO WE SOMETIMES EXPERIENCE STRANGE MUSCLE SPASMS BEFORE FALLING ASLEEP?
It's OK to admit it. It's happened to all of us, and it scared us to death, too. But don't worry; it's perfectly normal. When we're awake, our brains are constantly communicating with our various muscle groups, but when we're asleep, that connection between our brain and our muscles is turned off. However, there is a period of limbo just after we doze off and just before we enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, leaving some room for communication. In this transition period, if we think of something stressful or fearful, our body tries to jolt back into "awake mode" by connecting to all the muscle groups and preparing to fend off the perceived danger. These jarring flinches, known as "hypnic jerks," can also occur if a person is engaged in a repetitive activity for a long period of time during the day, such as kayaking or skiing. On these nights, the brain has a hard time letting go of that brain-muscle rhythm and accidentally tries to initiate the movement.

WHY DO PEOPLE YELL "GERONIMO" BEFORE JUMPING?
whyger.jpg Back in the late 1800s, the Chiricahua Apache chief, Geronimo, wasn't exactly excited that the Americans, like the Mexicans before them, were trying to take over the land where his tribe had been living for centuries. Geronimo was fierce, and he and his band of warriors often presented a major roadblock for the U.S. Cavalry. Tales of his heroic actions in battle were not hard to come by, but only one became legendary. As the story goes, when the U.S. Calvary was in pursuit of Geronimo during a battle in Medicine Bluffs (in present-day Oklahoma), they managed to corner him between their guns and a steep cliff. Determined not to be captured by the white man, Geronimo leapt over the edge "Thelma and Louise" style while defiantly crying out his name. The year before America joined in World War II, a group of parachute troops at Fort Benning, Ga., went to see a movie about Geronimo that included his famous jump. When they went airborne the next day, one or more soldiers shouted the chief's name upon jumping, and the tradition was born.

WHY DO CLOCKS RUN CLOCKWISE?
0448095017.jpg It has nothing to do with the intricate gearing mechanisms, the Earth's magnetic poles, or anything else quite so complex. The reason that the hands of a clock travel in a clockwise direction is related to the same reason that the number "12" appears at the top of the clock. The hands are mimicking the movements of shadows on the first clocks — sundials. The indicators run from left to right and peak at the very top at noon, when the sun is directly overhead. That's all there is to it!

WHY DO WE GET GOOSE BUMPS?
The truth is that goose bumps are pretty useless. When we get cold or scared, tiny muscles attached to our hair follicles tighten, making the connected hair stand erect. It's not likely that your arm hairs sticking straight up will scare anybody today, but back in the days when we looked a lot more like chimpanzees, it was a pretty good tactic for making the body look bigger and more menacing in the face of an approaching enemy. It also helped keep us warm because tightening the muscles attached to our hairs closed our sweat glands and reserved body heat. Unfortunately, we don't really have enough hair for that to make a big difference anymore either.

WHY IS GASOLINE SOLD AT PRICES ENDING IN 9/10THS OF A CENT?
images10.jpg There are two prevailing theories on how this originated. First, since gasoline is most often purchased in volume (say, 10 gallons at a time), the 9/10ths of a cent increment would help save a full penny when one filled a car's tank. Take into account that a penny used to buy a few things. Second, it might have referenced the percentage-of-a-cent taxes that governments put on fuel sales. Either way, the day of these excuses has long passed. The only reason that it continues today is that, to put it plainly, it looks less expensive. A station's sign can say $1.49 per gallon (with the 9/10ths in small print) and it seems like a bargain, whereas rounding it to $1.50 would cause some drivers to exclaim, "A buck and a half for a gallon of gas?!"

Lots more after the jump!

WHY ARE EGGS AND BUNNIES ASSOCIATED WITH EASTER?
whyegg.jpg The initial answer is pretty simple: Religious implications aside, Easter is essentially a celebration of springtime—a time in which big rabbits make a bunch of little rabbits and birds lay a whole lot of eggs, thus symbolizing rebirth. But the more complicated question is, why does the Easter bunny lay eggs? This strange animal hybrid originated as an Anglo-Saxon legend in which Eostre (the goddess of spring) turned a frozen bird into a hare to help it survive the harsh winter. The story was passed down through generations, and by the 1700s, Dutch settlers in America were telling their children that if they were good, the Easter bunny would come to their house and lay a beautiful nest of colorful eggs. For some reason, children really wanted colored eggs, so they went to great lengths to entice this magical bunny to place a nest at their house. Eventually, this led to our current celebration of the holiday in all its plastic grass, hollow chocolate and marshmallow bunny glory.

WHY DO LLAMAS SPIT?
The spit of a llama may be the only thing more offensive than that of a baseball player, so be extra nice. If you get on their bad sides, llamas can whip up a wad of piping hot stomach juices and send it hurling toward you with powerful precision. Far from normal saliva-based spit, this putrid present will make recipients wish they'd been sprayed by a skunk. But, to be fair, llamas rarely get angry enough to show off this hidden talent. Most of the time, llama spit is of the benign saliva variety and actually serves as a form of communication among llama herds.

WHY ARE THERE LINES ON A SIDEWALK?
It's basically a way for builders to cover up their cracks "¦ concrete cracks, of course. When concrete dries, it shrinks and breaks apart. But, making small divisions between slabs gives the concrete a more natural, thin place to crack, and makes it less noticeable. When damaged, it's also much easier to replace a single slab of sidewalk concrete that's already divided than to have to cut it away first.

WHY DO PEOPLE DRIVE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD IN OTHER COUNTRIES?
whywag.jpg If it wasn't for some silly wagon that people used to drive in the 18th century, we'd all be driving on the left side of the road. Way before there were even roads, people would pass each other on the left side so they could draw their swords with their right hands in case the passerby wasn't friendly. (Lefties were kind of screwed, but everybody was doing it, so they had to conform.) Eventually, as roads became more common, sticking to the left side just seemed natural, so that's how it remained until the late 1700s when the Americans went and changed everything. It was around this time that the settlers began using a wagon called a Conestoga. You're probably familiar with the kind of wagons people took out West, where the driver sat at the front of the wagon and guided four horses in front of him. The Conestoga differed from this because the driver rode atop one of the four horses—usually the left horse on the back row as to free the right hand for whipping. Sitting on the left side of the horses, it made more sense to pass on the right, where the driver's visibility was greatest. Conestoga wagons were all the rage in America, but eventually the French got involved and spread the right-hand custom on to all of the land it conquered during the Napoleonic years. Today, most of the countries that drive on the left-hand side of the road are those that are or were British colonies, like India and Australia.

>> Be sure to check out the first part in this series here. And if you enjoyed this article, you can purchase the back issue here on our site.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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