Original image

The Quick 10: 10 Sleep Snippets

Original image

I'm struggling today, you guys. I can barely keep my eyes open. All I can think about is getting home and closing my eyes for a few minutes. Which actually isn't going to happen, but hey, a girl can dream.

Anyway, since I can't think of anything else, I thought we would go for a sleep-related Quick 10 today - just some random facts about sleep. Hopefully I make it through all 10 before my head hits the keyboard.


1. Thai Ngoc is a Vietnamese man who has supposedly not slept a wink since 1973. The story is that he came down with some sort of a fever and, for whatever reason, hasn't been physically able to get any shut-eye since. Tests are out of the question; Thai hasn't left his village in 60 years and doesn't intend to. Amazingly, he appears to be pretty healthy otherwise, except he did say a couple of years ago that he is starting to feel like "a plant without water".

2. No doubt we have all experienced the microsleep. It's a brief episode of sleep that only from a portion of a second all of the way up a few seconds. It's probably most familiar to people who have been driving and feel like they spaced out for a minute, or perhaps during a particularly boring class when you do the sudden head-jerk move and wake yourself up almost immediately.

3. Exploding head syndrome sounds like it involves spontaneous combustion, but it doesn't. It's when you've been asleep for a couple of hours (usually, anyway), and then experience a really loud noise within your own head. It can sound like an explosion, a roar, loud voices "“ anything of that nature, really. There's no pain, but people who have experienced exploding head syndrome can be fearful and anxious after the attack. Doctors don't really know why this happens, but some think it might have something to do with stress and fatigue. Women are more likely to experience it than men. Any _flossers experience this? I'd be interested to hear about your episode(s).

4. Ever wonder what a good thread count for your sheets is?

Standard is 150, good-quality starts at 180 and 200 or higher is considered percale. Anything over 500 thread count may not be as wonderful as you think "“ the Federal Trade Commission warns that these types of cloths are often made of plied yarns. This means one yarn is made by twisting together multiple finer threads. It warns that consumers could be "deceived or misled" by these thread counts. Lots of insiders say anything over 500 thread count is pretty much a waste of money.

5. The official medical term for getting up in the middle of the night to pee is "Nocturia".

dogs6. And, the technical term for what we call "sleep", AKA that crap in your eye when you wake up sometimes, is "rheum". It's a mixture of tears, mucus, dust and dead skin cells. Gross.

7. During the Industrial Revolution, people used to put their babies to sleep using opium. Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup and Godfrey's Cordial were two popular remedies. I found out this fascinating fact in the upcoming mental_floss book, History of the World: An Irreverent Romp through Civilization's Best Bits, coming soon to a bookstore near you!

8. In 2004, Jonathan Husni inventeed PowerNap, an audio recording that says it can induce a three-hour sleep cycle in just 20 minutes.

9. People who suffer from night-eating syndrome are likely to be people who skip breakfast, consume at least half of their calories post-dinner, suffer from depression or anxiety, and have trouble sleeping in general.

10. Finally, one more definition for you. You know when you're falling asleep and you're ALMOST there and all of a sudden your leg jerks all by itself? Or sometimes you're dreaming you're falling and your body jerks when you hit the ground? That's a Hypnic or Hypnagogic jerk. No one knows for sure why this happens. It happens to me a lot.

I made it! Yay! Time for a nap. OK, at the VERY LEAST, I'm sleeping in tomorrow.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]