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10 Ways to Learn Stuff While Procrastinating Online

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It's Monday. You've had a nice, long, idle weekend, and—what's this? Someone who says they're your boss wants you to do work?! Well, we'll have none of that, will we? Of course not - this is the internet.

Frittering away hours in front of mental_floss' Amazing Fact Generator is always an option. But here are 10 other easy ways to put off whatever you're supposed to be doing while also getting your knowledge fix.

1. Learn how to write your name in Elvish

I wish I were better able to speak and read Spanish, but that takes a good bit of time to master — on the other hand, learning to write in Elvish takes all of ten minutes, according to this website. Granted, this is far less useful day-to-day than Spanish, but it's awfully nerdy, and that's a positive in my book. Elvish is a lot simpler than you'd think. Using the instructions on the site, I tried writing out "mental_floss":

elvish mentalfloss

Did I get it right? Check out the site and try your hand at writing your name.

2. Learn how to do anything

You've probably heard about the man who delivered his baby son after watching a how-to on YouTube. But there are plenty of less daunting how-to videos out there, like how to spin a pencil, how to play the ukulele (y'know, in case you have a ukulele lying around the office), or how to waltz. But my favorite has got to be the instructional video for how to talk like a pirate:

wikihowOf course, you shouldn't limit yourself to YouTube for these sorts of how-tos. The websites wikiHow and Instructables are also great resources. When I'm wasting time on the internet, I sometimes find myself reading articles on Instructables, even if I have no plans to follow them. I never played with Transformers as a kid, and I haven't seen either of the movies, but this Optimus Prime Costume is too impressive not to read about.

3. Learn how stuff works

This one's a no-brainer: HowStuffWorks is a great complement to mental_floss, covering pretty much every topic of inquiry you can think of. Just as with Instructables and wikiHow, you'll find plenty of articles about stuff that will almost definitely never apply to you, like "How Can I Survive a Night in the Alaskan Wilderness?" However, you're better off safe than sorry — if Sarah Palin calls you up tomorrow and asks you to go hunting with her, wouldn't you say yes? OK, me neither. But, reading about disaster scenarios is still more fun than filling out TPS reports.

4. Learn why a number is so important

0 1 2 propertiesThis one's for the math nerds: at this website, you can read what makes any number special, from 0 all the way up to 9999 (Spoiler alert! 9999 is a Kaprekar number, meaning that if you square it you get 99,980,001, and 9,998 + 0,001 = 9999). Reading about these seemingly random quirks of numbers is all well and good, but I find the site is best utilized when you put pencil to paper and work out the math behind the quirks. Plus, if someone's watching over you at work, it looks like you're very busy with some important calculations.

5. Learn why today is so important

Brad Williams, who runs, has hyperthymesia, which means his autobiographical memory is incredibly sharp. It's fitting, then, that his blog is all about what happened on certain dates in the past. For example, take June 26 — did you know that June 26, 1870, was the day the first part of the Atlantic City Boardwalk opened? Or that June 26, 1963, was the day President Kennedy informed the world that he was a jelly donut by telling a German crowd "Ich bin ein Berliner"? I sure didn't. Triviazoids is a treasure trove of little "Huh!" moments that'll keep you going till 5 p.m.

6. Learn what's in the stars

polluxThe Ancient Greeks looked to the sky at night and saw little blips of light. They couldn't quite explain what they were looking at, so they gave the blips names and told stories about why they were placed the way they were. Those stories have endured for millennia; thank goodness we're not under any pressure to be as creative as the Greeks were. The Neave Planetarium will explain the stars that are currently over your head, and you can give it any time or location to see what the night sky is like then and there. Even in full-screen mode, it can't quite compare to looking at the real thing, but it's a good substitute for those planetarium shows you probably sat through on field trips in elementary school.

7. Lean how to juggle

jugglingThis one's simple, but it's perfect for anyone with too much time, and a few roundish objects, on their hands. Follow the instructions here to learn how to juggle three or four objects. Just don't break anything!

8. Learn at the speed of random

wikipediaEveryone loves Wikipedia, right? Well, maybe not the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. But one of the niftiest features of the free online encyclopedia is the "random article" link. There are nearly 3 million articles on the site, so for solitary procrastinators, clicking it is a great way to blow off some steam and to be exposed to new facts.

But if you have two or more people in the room, the random function gets really interesting: you can use it to play an intensely competitive game, called "The Wikipedia Game" (creative title, eh?). Here's how it works: a player clicks the "random article" link once and gets a start page; then, he clicks it again and gets an end page. The players race to navigate from the start page to the end page, using only the links within the article (no category links, and no editing articles—that's cheating!). The first person to reach the end page yells "Done!" and must read back their clicking history. If their history checks out, then they become the player who retrieves the starting and ending articles for the next round. If you're organizing a few rounds of the Wikipedia Game, remember: the more people playing, the better.

9. Learn to count in binary on your hands

twelve binarySpeaking of hands, did you know it's possible to count to 31 on one hand? It's also nifty because you can covertly flip someone off while pretending that you're counting to four.

10. Learn what words mean (and give to charity while you're at it)

It's too bad not all charitable organizations can be as fun as It's a game that quizzes you on the definitions of words, increasing in difficulty as you get more and more correct. For each right answer, the site's administrators donate 10 grains of rice to the UN World Food Program. And if words aren't your thing, you can also tell the game to give you questions about famous paintings, chemical symbols, world capitals and more.

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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.