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The Fear of Fear Itself (and Other Esoteric Phobias)

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And you thought you were the only one who was "afraid of natural bodies of water because there might be shopping carts down there" (like this guy) or harbored a debilitating fear of lumpy foods, like this UK toddler who downs more than a dozen yogurts a day to compensate. Well, maybe you are -- but you can be certain that you're not alone when it comes to having esoteric phobias; for every thing, place, activity or concept in the world, it seems, someone's got a fear to go along with it. We're not interested in relatively common fears like hydrophobia or agoraphobia -- this is a list devoted to the weird, the rarely-documented, even the possibly-made-up; and if you've got one yourself, please share with us! We found a lot of these on sites like unusualphobias and phobiac, which encourage user-submitted phobias of the first-person-narrative variety; always good for a laugh, probably though not definitely true -- and usually not things you're likely to find in psychology textbooks.

Chronohypochondia: the fear of traveling back in time only to contract a now-curable illness which you die of because your time machine breaks down. One sufferer explains: "I have a fear that somehow I'll go back in time and get stuck there, then get some illness that we have cured now (like polio or the plague), and die from it all the time knowing that if I was here in time I would be saved. So, I've always wanted to learn how to make penicillin just in case." (We suggest you stay away from cheaply-made time machines from now on.)

Classicsphobia: the fear of Renaissance paintings, looming Greek and/or Roman statuary, and Greek gods in general. One lost soul confesses one of the strangest combination phobias we've ever encountered:

Hi, I have a very unusual fear, I have a fear of renaissance paintings. It sound weird I know but thats not all... along with that I have a fear of statues that are well done ( like big statues of people, mostly the greek statues), representations of jesus...and arches and domes (I can't stand under them if they are too big.) I also fear greek gods, very random I know but I fear Poseidon coming out of water when I'm in the pool or the beach... and I'm also scared if i'm under a big sky, by myself ... like a field or a place with no trees or buildings covering the sky ... I get scared that Zeus is going to come down from the sky. It's allllll SO weird, I know, but it has taken over my life because I can't go into many places because of it. On top of that, I have heard of no one with any of these fears. Please -- if anyone has anything like what I've mentioned email me and let me know because that would re-assure me.


Hyper-specific numerophobia: fear of the number 211. I can relate to this a little: when I was younger, for several years I was convinced that the number 333 was stalking me. It seemed like every time I looked at the clock, it was 3:33 PM (or, more rarely, AM), and it appeared frequently on receipts and the like. I wouldn't qualify it as a phobia, however; more of a compulsion, like this sufferer:

"Somehow I developed the fear of dying while reading a book between pages 208-211, the odds of my death increasing with each number/page. This has generalized into a fear of the number 211 -- when I pass a digital clock around 2:11 I nervously check to see if the fatal number has passed or not. If it is 2:11 I'm compelled to wait till the "danger" is passed, at 2:12 [before resuming whatever I was doing before]."

Garthbrooksautophobia: fear of dying in a car crash while country music is playing on the radio. I better let the phobiac explain this one: "I have a fear of being in a car crash, and as I'm dying trapped in the wreckage, the radio gets stuck on a Country & Western Station, and I can't get to the radio to switch it off or change the station. I don't want to die like this! I've had this phobia since the age of 17, I'm now 36. - R.S." (We're assuming R.S. doesn't appreciate country music.)

Beepaphobia: fear of beeps, bells etc. This one's downright existential; sufferers seem to equate the irritating beeps that surround us in modern life (microwaves, timers, watches, phone rings) with some kind of existential countdown, signaling the eternal rundown of their personal life-clock. Here are two separate accounts of this fear:

"OK, I'm 15 and I have a fear of beeps! No kidding -- when something beeps (oven, alarm clock, etc.) my heart starts racing and I get all nervous and irritated. rrggg... it's soooo annoying!"

Howdy, I must drop a line stating I can concede with the fellow who is terrified with the sound of beeping. For several years I have thought that the justification was past due deadlines or the urgency of it all, but in the end I think I may be nuts. Whether it's the alarm on my clock or the beep of someone's cell I can't handle the constant "beep" or meep meep" of it all. I've come to the conclusion that each one signifies a notch in the belt of my demise. As though the timer has gone off for the end of my life & someone's neglecting it only to surprise me in the end. The last time a friend used a timer (was baking us a cake) I freaked out & stabbed him with a fork (he's ok, though he only makes Jello for us now).

Is there a name for this? Sweet god it sucks.


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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.