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Time to wrap up a few outstanding giveaways and make some general announcements. Sounds fun, right?

"¢ The folks running Ithaca's 'Light in Winter' festival kindly offered two free tickets to one of our readers. Based on the responses to Sunday's upstate New York trivia challenge, we've declared Alicia the winner. She just wanted it more. Congratulations! I'll be in touch about your free tix. And for everyone else who still wants to attend, visit

"¢ In case you missed Higgins' post this morning, we're hoping you'll send us photos of the oldest thing you own for a gallery feature we're working on. If you want to show off your stuff, here are the details.

"¢ Allison is working on the second installment of The Weekend Links. Got something flossy she should include? Send her an email:

"¢ Back on December 27th, we asked what makes your dogs so special. We have a winner!

From Ellen, about BB:

bb.jpgBB (short for Big Boy) was the runt of the litter. He was also the garbage can for all of the worst possible gene combinations available from his parents. His mother is a Shar pei/Pit mix. From that gene grouping he received his problematic skin condition that won't allow fur to grown on his face and throat. Another little "˜gift' from Mom are his collapsing ear canals that has rendered him mostly deaf. From good ol' Pops, an Australian Sheppard/??? mix, BB inherited his white fur with patches of brown, gray, tan, and black markings. A very handsome coat, indeed. However, according to my Vet, the gene that determines the color of the coat is the same that determines the color of the eye. Hence, the whiter the dog, the greater the chance for blindness. Thus, BB was born blind. So here I have this medium size dog with no fur on his face and throat, who is blind and mostly deaf. Awwww, you say? No, just wait. Now, I'll explain why he should be a candidate for world changing canine.

This is a pooch with a demeanor of never-ending hopefulness, good nature and determination. At any given time, you will find him overflowing with love and gratitude at the least sign of attention. He finds his way through the house and around the back yard as though he has it totally mapped out in his head. And when he does by chance run into a chair or a doorway, he smiles and shakes it off as though it were a little joke on him. When he goes looking for me, you can bet he will find me, no matter when I might be. He greets all strangers with an openness and unconditional happiness that melts their hearts on contact. The world should take a lesson from this brave little fellow: The adversities that are handed to us are simply inconvenient, not immobilizing. By the way, when he's really happy, he chases his tail. Makes you wonder how he knows it's there to chase!

Ellen should have already received her copy of 100 Dogs Who Changed Civilization: History's Most Influential Canines. Well deserved!

That's enough for one post. If anyone has any other Odds and/or Ends not covered, leave a comment or send me an IM (flossyjason). Good night!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”