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8 Vaguely Named Professions: Explained!

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"What is it that you do, exactly?"

You asked, we answered. We dug deep to find the dirt on a few of the most vaguely named and/or unknown professions in our American capitalist system.

1. Surveyor

"What could he possibly be looking at? How long does he have to stand there? Are they even writing anything down?"

Be honest, you've been DYING to know what those people with the little tripods are staring at on the side of the road. According to, those vest-wearing folks are out there to "mark the boundaries of land, create maps and legal descriptions, and plan and organize the development of property." Inspired by the persisting spirit of Manifest Destiny, these men and women are soldiers for one of our most cherished rights: the right to own property, put a fence around it, and grow hedges to keep out the neighbors.

Those nifty little tripod doohickeys (actually called "transit levels") are just one tool used in a massive amount of data gathering about any plane of land space. From there, surveyors can determine the best place to mark the corner of a property, re-establish property lines, give advice and council to a building developer, and (perhaps their most important job) interpret the legal speak from a land deed written 65 years ago.

Despite the many hours of painstaking measurements that a surveyor might take on a piece of land, surveyors apparently like to think of their job as "much an art as it is a science." Which is a poetic way of telling you up front that no two land surveys are likely to be identical, and that the way we draw boundaries and maps remains fluid and changing over time. That means as long as the way we look at land is always changing, there will always be work for the guys in the vests with the little tripod thingies. Well played, surveyors. Well played.

2. Orderly

First things first, let's get this straight—there is absolutely nothing orderly about cleaning out bed pans for the invalid, infirm and elderly. It should most definitely be called something more like, "unavoidably messy" or at the very least, "somewhat tricky". Nevertheless, Orderly is the title that has been applied to the multi-functional hospital employees who, for a lack of a better explanatory phrase, do all the dirty work. Orderlies can be called upon to do just about anything in a hospital room, except administer any kind of medicine. They lift, carry, clean, restrain, record vitals, give sponge baths, and encourage/assist patients to ingest questionably edible hospital cuisine. You know the guy who rolls patients to the door of the hospital in a wheel chair even if they were admitted for measles? That's an orderly. They do it all!

The common myth is that "orderly" is another word for male nurse, but there is nothing exclusionary about the gender of this chosen profession. The reason that it tends to be dude-heavy is just simple physics: lifting heavy, incapacitated patients in and out of bed is not a job for the petite. Strong ladies with developed upper bodies: feel free to apply!

3. Surgeon General

We felt kind of stupid for having to put this one on the list, but seriously, what does this person do other than come up with tiny little warnings? Do you actually have to be a surgeon to claim this title?

west-wing-sg.jpgMost of what I know about the Surgeon General comes from an episode of The West Wing. Once I decided to research beyond our nifty West Wing DVD box set, I discovered that the Surgeon General is responsible for articulating and orchestrating federal health initiatives on issues like worldwide disease, illegal drug use and safe sex practices. They also educate the public on a variety of pressing health concerns. (For example, how to eat your food in a pyramid-like fashion, how many minutes a day you need to move your lazy butt so as to avoid getting diabetes, and, of course, how smoking is nuts.) And no, they don't actually have to be a surgeon.

So where does the "general" part come in? The Surgeon General holds the rank of a three-star Admiral while in office, authorizing him or her to command the 6,000 Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service who are on call 24 hours a day, waiting to jump into action in the event of a national health crisis (mad cows, flu-ridden birds, salmonella salad dressing on spinach, etc.). So when our worst nightmares come true and someone drops a vial of the plague in Times Square, it's the calming voice of the Surgeon General that we will be turning to for advice, counsel and directions to the closest quarantine facility.

4. Best Boy

In an industry lousy with panty-less starlets, Christmas-tree-tackling alcoholics, and sex tapes that get released "accidentally on purpose," we wouldn't be surprised if movie studios handed out a job title just for showing up on time and being on your best behavior. However, the true origin of "Best Boy" comes from the days of merry Olde England, when a master artist would take on apprentices, who would learn his craft. The best boy in that case was the Master's oldest, most trusted apprentice, who would keep the other yahoos in line.

Most movie sets will actually have two best boys—one who serves as the first assistant to the Gaffer (chief electrician) and one who answers directly to the Key Grip. Which of course, begs the question, "What the heck is a grip?" Grips are the guys (or gals) who literally hold and/or move things around on set. They might grasp a boom mic, set up lighting equipment for the gaffer and his electricians, or haul materials around for the set builders to use to create another scene. There is a small sub-set of grips who specialize in the set up and use of dolly tracks—smooth moving tracks upon which they set a special camera apparatus—which are used to get those fluid, moving shots where the camera has to follow the action (called "tracking shots"). The one person that is in charge of the subset of dolly setter-uppers is of course, the Head Dolly. (Yeah, we had hoped that one would have a cooler story behind it too.)

5. Baby Wrangler

This is our new favorite movie credit job title. "Baby Wrangler" is the cutesy name given to credit the Registered Nurse who is required by law to be on set if there are any babies in the production. If you want, feel free to join us as we instead choose to visualize someone guarding an entire pen full of babies and then, when called upon, searches her herd for the one who isn't pooping or crying and hands them off to be in the next shot.

6. Ombudsman

This has to be one of the more ominous sounding job titles out there "“ possibly because it starts with the same two letters as "ominous," but also because if you need an ombudsman, it probably means some dank, smelly excrement has hit the fan. Whenever you've got a potentially explosive and litigious conflict between two entities, these guys are called in to be the middlemen, the mediators, and the last stop on the train to Lawsuit City. They attempt to resolve conflicts between private citizens and the government, disgruntled students and their university, or between an employee and his or her soul-sucking employer. Fired unfairly? Expelled without due process? Denied federal benefits? Tell it to the ombudsman.

Many news organizations (mental_floss excluded) appoint ombudsmen to handle reader complaints. We'll put this on a list, along with "airline counter employee" and "DMV clerk," of Jobs for Masochists Only.

7. City Controller

Okay, at first glance, this seems like one of the more awesome jobs in existence. The title conjures images of a guy in front of a huge computer screen that takes up an entire wall, manipulating traffic lights, launching helicopters, and barking orders at his meek mayor and subservient councilmen, all while looking down on the city he controls from the top of its highest sky scraper—and (it should go without saying) cackling maniacally. In actuality, the person with this title is probably sitting in front of a desk covered in balance sheets, ripping handfuls of hair out of his or her head while looking over the budget and expenses from every single city department, agency, board, commission, and elected office. Yup—a city controller is an accountant.

As it turns out, there is more than one glorified term to describe a number cruncher. Perhaps you've heard of a comptroller? Guess what: same thing as a controller "“ just with one über-annoying letter change. Ditto for the title of Bursar, except they manage the money owed by piss-poor college students (or their parents) for tuition, housing and other miscellaneous and expensive fees associated with higher education.

8. Riverkeeper

If a riverbed dries up, does it make a sound? Yes—the sound of a sobbing Riverkeeper who then tries to refill the river with a million tiny tears. Okay, we're being a tad dramatic, but the job of Riverkeeper (along with coastal keepers, inlet keepers, creek keepers, stream keepers, and lake keepers) is to monitor the status of his assigned body of H2O, keeping careful watch over pollution, water levels, and erosion. Riverkeepers also have to stay on top of water usage habits and commercial and residential development in any area that feeds off of the river's water supply.

If a land developer or business is abusing their water source or polluting, riverkeepers get to play the role of whistleblower. In other words, if Captain Planet and his pre-teen Planeteers were around today, this would have been the primo dream job for the kid who represented "Water." Meanwhile the kid who was assigned to "Fire" is still waiting around for Smokey the Bear to step down and retire.

Jenn Thompson is a freelance writer for publications including Charlotte Magazine, Variety, and Time Out.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]