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Places Not On Your Freshman Orientation Tour

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You've heard the saying, "Where there's a will, there's a way"? Well, where there are bored college kids, there are ways. At many campuses across the United States, students have managed to wiggle into underground maintenance tunnels or skulk up roof access ladders. This practice is known in some circles as tunneling, roof and tunnel hacking, urban spelunking or vadding. The tunnels, set up to channel steam and other utilities (that T1 line has to come from somewhere) are filled with pipes and machinery and typically lined with scrawls of graffiti from past travelers. Stories of these tunnels are made of both truth and legend...

Miskatonic (Bradford)

The ghost hunters at HollowHill.com claim that the tunnels at Bradford College (now defunct) are not only haunted, but also have a famous connection with H.P. Lovecraft. According to legend, Lovecraft dated a girl at the college who helped him bury the real Necronomicon in an unused tunnel that ran under the pond. The tunnel was sealed off and the exact location of the evil book is unknown.

Hey, Free Uranium! (Columbia)

Columbia University continually vows to lock and guard their extensive underground tunnel system. Understandable, given that in 1987, freshman Ken Hechtman and his merry band of tunnel hackers (known as ADHOC: Allied Destructive Hackers of Columbia) used the tunnels to steal uranium-238 from Pupin Hall. Despite the tunnel lockdown, student spelunkers still manage to sneak into the labyrinth - which winds around the 19th century Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, abandoned bomb shelters, and Manhattan Project research facilities - to throw parties.

Exterior Decorating (MIT)

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Freshmen at MIT can take an Orange Tour led by upperclassmen who know their way around the roofs and tunnels. It's an important tour to take, because MIT students are infamous for the pranks they pull by hacking university buildings. The IHTFP Hack Gallery documents all types of structural hacking. The Great Dome on the McLaurin building, for instance, has been transformed into a giant R2D2, the one ring to rule them all (above), and most famously, a parking spot for a police cruiser.

Underground Creek (UCLA)

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UCLA's six mile network of tunnels is allegedly one of the cleanest, and connects to all major buildings on campus. The tunnels mask an underground room 100x200 feet wide with a thirty feet drop lined in brick, dubbed "The Bridge" because it once served as one. A creek used to run across campus, but was later dammed up and filled in for construction purposes. When it rains, the tunnels sometimes still flood with water. Rumor has it that the system was so extensive it even reached the residence halls, but that these tunnels were sealed up for security reasons when UCLA's dorms served as the Olympic Village during the 1984 summer games.

Be the Ultimate Underground Dungeon Master

Due to sensationalist journalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, skulking in steam tunnels is also associated with Dungeons & Dragons and Live Action Role Playing (LARP). These urban myths claim that hardcore role playing gamers traipse into the steam tunnels while prancing about hitting each other with sticks and pretending to be paladin elves and sorcerer dwarves. The disappearance of Michigan State student James Dallas Egbert is often used as an attack on RPGs. Many misconceptions about the dangers of roleplaying gaming and LARPing stem from stories of these steam tunnel incidents.

The alt.college.tunnels newsgroup and defunct sites Steam Tunnels and Infiltration all have information about college steam tunnels. Specific campuses have student-run sites as well, which can be located on Facebook and through Google searches.

Oh! The places you'll go! (Or not. You're not really supposed to.) Obviously, the areas hacked are restricted, so you'd be, er, trespassing and definitely violating university policy. That said, if you do ever venture down the campus hidey holes, be sure to wear long sleeves and the proper footwear, and take plenty of water and a flashlight. Do not go alone, do not go inebriated, and understand there are dangers like sudden drops, heatstroke, burns, electrocution, and asbestos, just to name a few.

These are just some of my favorite stories about little-known places and tunnels at universities "“ I know every college has its secrets. Does your school have any interesting tunnel lore?

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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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