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8 Strikes that Turned Ugly (or Inspired Keanu Reeves Movies)

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As we head into Labor Day Weekend, we thought it would be fitting to revisit some notable strikes in American history—from the railroad industry to the Post Office, Disney to the NFL.

1. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

After the Panic of 1873, a country-wide depression, things in America kind of went downhill for a couple of years. By 1877, more than a quarter of all workers were laid off and those who had jobs suffered severe wage cuts. Railroads were no different. Strikes began in Pennsylvania, soon followed by Virginia, where federal troops were deployed to get transportation going again. Fed up with the state of the country's economics, workers across the nation protested the way strikers were being treated. From Maryland to St. Louis, militia was called in to try to control the crowds. Unfortunately this only made the situation worse "“ more than 100 people were killed. Overall, about 100,000 workers went on strike.

2. The Haymarket Riots of 1886

haymarket.jpgThose of us who enjoy the eight-hour workday may have unionists involved in the May 1, 1886, Haymarket Square Rally to thank. Although several strikes for the same cause came earlier, Chicago was the movement's heart. The "peaceful" part of a peaceful demonstration by 10,000 workers ended when the picket line was crossed. Unionists attacked the offenders and police opened fire, killing four demonstrators. That night, about 1,000 angry people gathered in Haymarket Square to express their outrage. At the end of the rally, a bomb exploded and killed one policeman immediately. Six others later died from injuries and sixty more were wounded. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing one and wounding many. Four people were hanged in connection to the bombing, although no evidence existed to prove them guilty.

3. Newsboys Strike of 1899

newsies.jpgWhat does Batman have to do with the Newsboys Strike? We'll get to that in a second. Newsboys were pretty low on the social totem pole in New York City at that time "“ many of them slept on the streets and were paid only 30 cents a day. They had to pay for the papers they sold out of those meager wages, so when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer increased that price by 10 cents for every 100 newspapers, the newsboys called a strike. They brought traffic to a dead halt by demonstrating on the Brooklyn Bridge for days. The leader of the strike was a newsboy called Kid Blink, so called because of his poor vision in one eye. After two weeks of reduced circulation of their newspapers, Pulitzer and Hearst finally relented and bought back all of the papers the boys had refused to sell, plus paid the boys more money per paper sold.

This story of a band of scruffy kids triumphing over the publishing giants was made into a 1992 Disney musical called Newsies, starring a young Christian Bale"¦ also known as the latest reincarnation of Batman on the big screen.

4. The Southern Colorado Coal Strike of 1914

From 1913-1914, the United Mine Workers of America ordered a strike against Colorado coal mining companies (one of which was owned by the Rockefeller family). The reasons cited included that the companies were cheating workers out of wages and not following Colorado mining safety laws or eight-hour workday laws.

massacre.jpgBecause many miners lived in homes provided by the company, anyone who went on strike was immediately evicted. The union had foreseen this and leased land for evicted workers to live on, in tents. The tent villages were strategically placed near the coal camps so strikers could harass replacement workers. The mining companies hired a detective agency to protect the replacement workers. The "protection" consisted of agents firing random shots into tents, unprovoked, and patrolling the camp in an armored car with a machine gun mounted on it. To protect themselves, miners dug pits beneath their tents that they could crawl into when they needed better shelter.

On April 20, a fight broke out between the two parties and the tent village was set ablaze. Four women and 11 children had been hiding in a tent pit when the fires started. Two of the women and all of the children suffocated, leading the UMWA to call this incident "The Ludlow Massacre." Between the fire and the shootings, a total of 45 people died.

Ludlow is now a ghost town. A monument was erected in 1918 to recognize those who died for the cause.

5. The Disney Animators Strike of 1941

mickey.GIFWe all know the stories of things hidden in Disney cartoons "“ the dust cloud that spells out "Sex" in The Lion King, and Aladdin supposedly telling children to take off their clothes. But did you know that even Dumbo has controversy hidden within the animation?


There were some disgruntled animators at Disney after Snow White was released in 1937. Employees had put in a lot of uncompensated overtime in order to get the first feature-length animated film out and were not given the bonuses they were promised for doing so. In fact, many of them were laid off. One of the rounds of layoffs hit members of the Screen Cartoonists Guild quite hard. When Art Babbitt, an animator on the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and Fantasia was fired, it was the last straw. Employees went on strike for five weeks, which happened to be in the middle of the making of Dumbo. As a result, many of the strikers are featured in the cartoon as circus clowns needling for raises. The strike was eventually settled overwhelmingly in favor of the Guild.

6. The U.S. Postal Strike of 1970

postalstrike.jpgAs if Richard Nixon didn't have enough black marks on his tenure as President. In 1970, postal workers went on an illegal two-week strike because of low wages, bad working conditions and pathetic benefits.


In an attempt to stop the strike, Nixon went on national TV and ordered strikers back to work. Not only did this fail, it completely backfired: he angered workers in 671 other locations, convincing them to join the strike. In fact, government agencies not even involved with the Postal Service were angered enough by his television appearance to threaten to join the strike if Nixon pursued any legal action. Nixon ordered 24,000 military workers to replace the striking postal workers, but they weren't very helpful.

Negotiations were finally hammered out with the help of the Secretary of Labor. Unions got most of what they were asking for and also won the right to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions.

7. Air Traffic Controllers Strike of 1981

airtraffic.jpgWhat does an industry do when nearly three quarters of an essential part of its workforce goes on strike? That's exactly what happened on August 3, 1981, when about 13,000 air traffic controllers ceased work, demanding better benefits, more pay and fewer hours. President Reagan immediately held a press conference and said that if strikers didn't return to work in two days or less, they would be fired. He wasn't kidding. More than 11,000 of them were terminated and the rest of them went back to work.


Working against them was the fact that the FAA had a backup plan, which worked beautifully. Most flights continued with no interruption, thanks to non-striking employees and military controllers who pitched in to help. Even worse, the public sided with the government. The end result was that the FAA discovered that they could fully operate with one third less air traffic controllers, so the strike really achieved the exact opposite of what the strikers had intended. Oops.

8. NFL Strike of 1987

keanu.jpgAnother strike that worked against the strikers was the NFL walkout of 1987. Without much of a reason, players went on a 24-day strike when their old agreement expired. The owners refused to give in and continued scheduled games with replacement players. The owners actually made about $121,000 more per game because they could pay the replacements far less. The striking players, however, ended up personally losing about $15,000 per game "“ about $80 million overall. (Side note: Joe Montana crossed the picket line to play with the scabs.)

As in the case of the air traffic controllers, the public had little sympathy for the players or the union. Players were divided over whether to continue to strike or not and some of them returned to work. The owners stayed a united front "“ none of them entered separate negotiations.

replacements.jpgThe strike ended when the players caved and agreed to get back on the field on October 15. Even this was met with contention by the owners, who wanted the players to return on October 14 so they could play in that weekend's games. When the players didn't show up until the 15th, the owners refused to let them play that weekend. After lawsuits from both sides, things eventually settled down enough for games to continue with the original teams. Most replacement players never played pro football again.

One of the fun things that resulted from the strike was nicknames for teams with replacement players: The Los Angeles Shams, the San Francisco Phoney Niners, the Miami Dol-Finks and the Chicago Spare Bears, to name a few.

Of course there are countless more, including transportation strikes, teacher strikes, and strikes in all the other major sports. What do you think has had the most impact? Have you ever gone on strike, or crossed a picket line? How'd that work out for you?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

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.”

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