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The Weekend Links

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"¢ Let's kick things off with 10 Historic Monuments Dedicated to Great Geeks.

"¢ From Denise, a cool video about the significance of images seen by the Hubble telescope. Perhaps it will transport you back to those planetarium field trips of old, first agog at the sheer vastness of space. It may make you feel insignificant, that we're all just grains of sand in the universe, but don't worry—some grains of sand can be pretty darn interesting.

"¢ I'll let Eric explain this game in his own words: "Warning: not recommended for people who have governments, constituents, nuclear power plants or mob bosses waiting on them. For everyone else, though, this is mighty addicting." My score was pitiful ... under 100. We'll leave it at that. Any high scores out there?

"¢ It's been pretty rainy and dreary here in Atlanta for the past week, but thanks to Andi's link for 101 Things to Do When You're Bored, I've made my afternoons much more interesting.

"¢ From CollegeHumor, a list of Firefox Extensions You Probably Didn't Know About. Some might not be suitable for work. But if you're stuck working on a Saturday, your boss should look the other way.

"¢ A sundry of great links from Flossy reader Josiah: first, alliteration gone too far—a story written only in words beginning with the letter W. If this doesn't drive you a little mad, or at least thinking in an Elmer Fudd voice, I don't know what could.

"¢ A fantastic, informative video from the Onion News Network on how to pretend like you care about the election.

"¢ I think working in an environment with these 3D wall paintings would have me running into a lot of walls...


"¢ From Jan, 24 unforgettable advertisements, including the skin cancer awareness ad above. The PETA "human meat" display is not for the sensitive. But as for the others ... if only so much innovation and thought went into other things, imagine!

"¢ Also from Jan, "The Secret Language of Cocktails," or, What Your Cocktail Says about You, none of which are particularly positive, which perhaps indicates something more general.

"¢ From our own Flossy intern Kristen, a link to an alarm clock so vicious it starts calling random numbers from your phone when you ignore it in favor of slumber. If any of my friends got this horrid thing I would demand they remove my number at once. If waking up is really that big of a problem for you, perhaps try changing your sleep patterns.

"¢ Whitney Matheson of USA Today PopCandy fame is at Lebowski Fest. Here's her Lebowski Fest FAQ, and keep checking back for her live updates.

"¢ Here's an unusual stop-motion animation sent over by Michael from The Daily Tube.

"¢ Friend of the Floss Wil Wheaton will be guest starring on Criminal Minds.

"¢ My friend Kevin sends me a plethora of great links during the week, but this one caught my fancy to share—a video on why cell phones are evil, as revealed by someone who microwaved theirs. So what if they used some animation tricks? We know it's close enough to the truth.

"¢ No doubt most of you guys have tried this before, but I find it just as weird now as when it was first shown to me—Larry shares with us the old foot movement trick on his blog. Putting my foot in the air didn't do much, but shuffling it around on the floor in a circle worked like a charm. Could anyone resist its powers?

"¢ One of my best link-finders, Angie, has lead me to this site of pictures made from typography. Great for all your font-philes and word worshipers out there.

"¢ Feeling lonely? Or just looking to take over the world? Here are some key excerpts from Dale Carnegie's influential How to Win Friends and Influence People.

"¢ I know there are quite a few web applications similar to this one where you can create your own snowflake, but I found this particular site pretty stellar and fun to play with.

"¢ Finally, this ole thing just to make your head spin.

Hope everyone had a great 4th of July last week, and that you have a crackerjack weekend coming up! Remember to send all links, internet arcana, pictures, and shameless plugs to, or add FlossyLinks to your Google Notebook.
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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.”