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9 Toe-tally Cool Facts

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Last week I suffered a rather embarrassing injury while rushing to the bathroom: a severely stubbed pinky toe. After determining (and confirming with two sources) that the toe wasn't broken, I was inspired to do more research on my toes. Here are nine facts, one for each of my little piggies that isn't turning purple.

1. They can replace your fingers


Since fingers and toes are both digits, they should be interchangeable, right? Well, in toe-to-hand surgery, toes can be used to replace missing fingers. The method was first used on humans in 1975 and is now widely used. Not every finger can be replaced, but often the big toe can be used for a missing thumb.

2. You can't serve without one (even though you probably could)


To enlist in the army, you have to have all ten of your toes intact- their rules state that they will reject anyone for "current absence of a foot or any portion thereof." But as it turns out, it shouldn't be an issue, since a missing toe doesn't cause much damage. In fact, doctors have been able to design special shoes for toe amputees that will correct minor step problems.

3. Anna Wintour thinks they're sexy


Vogue Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour once listed the "unwritten dress code" of the Voguette, which included "toe-cleavage shoes, sans stockings." She's not the only one to preach the sexiness of toe cleavage- opening the vamp of a shoe is well regarded as a chic move in the fashion world. Frederick's of Hollywood says showing toes can be sexually suggestive. However, the key is moderation. Manolo Blahnik warns that the secret is only showing the first two cracks.

4. Stalin's were webbed

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Joseph Stalin suffered from syndactyly, where multiple digits are fused together. In layman's terms, the toes (or fingers) are webbed. There's no evidence that the condition causes any problems, nor does it improve swimming ability, as might be expected. Other famous sufferers of syndactyly are Dan Aykroyd and Ashton Kutcher.

5. The Egyptians knew how to replace them

Jon Bodsworth, Wikimedia Commons // Copyrighted Free Use

Even though a missing toe won't cause significant problems, that doesn't mean they shouldn't be replaced. In fact, toe prosthetics could date back as far as 3,000 years. Explorers found a mummy in Egypt with a leather and wood contraption that is believed to be a prosthetic toe. The "Cairo Toe" dates back to between 1069 BC and 664 BC and predates the earliest known prosthetic by at least 700 years.

6. You can wrestle them

If you can arm wrestle and thumb wrestle, doesn't it just make sense that you can toe wrestle. Since 1993, the English village of Wetton has played host to the World Toe Wrestling Championship, a contest with too many toe puns to repeat. Contestants simply lock toes in a ring, then try to push each other out in a three-round toe-down (get it?). Despite the cult popularity of the sport, it was rejected by the IOC when organizers applied for inclusion in the Olympics. The sport was dominated in the last decade by Paul Beech, who nicknamed himself "The Toeminator."

7. People have had as many as 13

The Guinness Book of World Records currently lists a tie for the most number of fingers and toes at 25. Two Indian boys, Pranamya Menaria and Devendra Harne, each have 12 fingers and 13 toes thanks to polydactilism, a congenital condition that results in extra digits. Polydactilism occurs in about one in every 500 births and can be treated. Marilyn Monroe is rumored to have been born with an extra toe on her left foot, but the proof is iffy.

8. Dancing on them sure can hurt


Ballerinas are famous for their incredible ability to dance "en pointe," or on their toes. The technique requires not just strength in the digits, but also support throughout the body to stay straight. Not surprisingly, though, dancing en pointe carries a great deal of risk with it. The Wikipedia article has a long list of potential injuries; among them are tendonitis, dermatitis, hammer toes, stress fractures and bunions.

9. A toe injury ended Jack Lambert's career

During his ten-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jack Lambert established himself as one of the NFL's best linebackers. The nine-time pro bowler was key to the tough Steelers defense and famous for his missing front teeth. But despite his toughness, all it took to sideline his career was a toe injury. A reoccurring turf toe injury, where a toe is hyperextended, forced him to exit the league in 1984.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]