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5 Fail-Safe Rituals for Protecting Your Newborn

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To ensure a happy and prosperous future for a newborn, parents will do the darnedest things. These are just a handful of 'em.

1. Jump Over Your Baby

In parts of northern Spain, newborns participate in a ceremony that seems part Olympic track and field event, part Evel Knievel stunt. Several babies are placed on a mattress while a man long-jumps over them. The ceremony is based on the biblical story in which King Herod orders all male babies in the area to be killed after hearing that a "new king" has been born in Bethlehem. Just as Mary and Joseph escaped with baby Jesus to Egypt, this Spanish ritual is meant to symbolize a similar "danger" experience for a child. By undergoing it and emerging (hopefully) unharmed, the child is prepared for a safe passage through life.

2. Play Some Baby Hot Potato

In Bali, many natives observe a custom whereby the baby isn't allowed to touch the ground (or cradle, or whatever) for the first 105 days of the child's life. Instead, the newborn is continuously held by family members.

3. Smoke Your Baby

In Kimberley, Australia, many Aboriginal mothers still practice the art of "baby smoking." The ritual is meant to protect the child by giving it the blessing of the tribal mothers in addition to the baby's "earth mother." Branches and leaves from sacred konkerberry shrubs are burned, creating what are believed to be purifying fumes. Then the mother squeezes her breast milk into the fire, and the grandmother waves the baby through the smoke.

4. Don't Name Your Child

Many societies believe that newborns are particularly susceptible to evil spirits, and a baby's name is sometimes kept secret (or not given at all) so it can't be used against the child in spells. In some Haitian, Nigerian and Romani cultures, babies are given two names at the time of birth. Parents keep one name a secret and don't share it with the child until he's considered old enough to guard the name for himself. Similarly, in Thailand, a newborn is often referred to by a nickname to escape the attention of evil spirits, who are believed to be the ghosts of dead, childless, unmarried women. The newborn is given a two-syllable name, which is mainly used later on by teachers, employers, and during formal occasions. Some Vietnamese parents even delay naming their baby until it's more than one month old—the safety margin, spirit-wise. They also discourage anyone from complimenting the newborn; instead, they refer to the tot as "ugly" or "rat" to deter evil spirits, who prefer harassing attractive babies.

5. Cut the Cord (then Bury it in a Special Place)

Overprotective moms, take note! The Navajo tribe of Native Americans believe that if the umbilical cord and placenta of a newborn are buried near the family's house, the child will always return home. The placenta is also sometimes buried next to objects that symbolize the profession the parents hope their child will pursue, which may explain the spike in buried stethoscopes found all across the land.

See Also: 12 Terrible Pieces of Advice for Pregnant Women Through the Years

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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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May 23, 2017
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