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Allie Brosh

The Proliferation of a Virtual Species: You'll Like This Alot

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Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh created the lovable creature we know as the alot, in order to cope with the very common mistake of making "a lot" into one word.

But there is one grammatical mistake that I particularly enjoy encountering.  It has become almost fun for me to come across people who take the phrase "a lot" and condense it down into one word, because when someone says "alot," this is what I imagine:

The world of the internet has seen the genesis of many fabulous creatures, but the alot has managed to successfully breed and proliferate across the virtual landscape better than most. It was introduced on April 13th, 2010. By April 18th, it had its own definition at Urban Dictionary. I believe there are two main reasons for the alot's success.

1. The grammatical phenomenon of making "a lot" into one word strikes a chord with many internet users. This habit is common among English speakers, but is only obvious when typed. Therefore, the annoyance it brings flourishes naturally on the web, where the literate and semi-literate live side-by-side.

2. This creature is so ugly that it's cute. Folks love that. Alot.

It wasn't long before the t-shirts began to sell like hot cakes. And Brosch's fans embraced the creature. Alot.

Isolde Honore made a hat alot. Such a clever disguise!

Seattle artist WednesdayWolf painted the Alot, and you can buy a print at Etsy.

Ravelry is a forum for knitters and crocheters. A subgroup on the forum called Knit Knack held a competition last May to recreate the alot. Ravelry is limited to members, but evidence of the project can be found elsewhere because the entries are so cute!

The winner was Maiya Mayhem, who named her creation Alot of Fun. See more pictures at her website.

Shanny, who organized the competition, made a needle felted alot.

Senor Mysterioso crocheted this fetching alot.

Mary pointed out that chickens eat alot.

Alot of Pink Saphire was part of a different Ravelry project, the Gringotts Wizarding Bank Heist. It's enough to make me want to pull the yarn out of storage just so I can join this forum!

By June, people were baking alot. This alot cupcake was photographed by James Michael Heywood.

Arlyn Bantog posted her version in July.

In September, Travis Byrnes bought alot of Spam. With apologies to Monty Python, it's a "spam alot".

In October, DeviantART member loveandasandwich showed us her version of the alot, made by hand with lots of fur.

Alix was requested to make an alot by a friend, and came through with this awesome plush toy. See more pictures at her site Arixystix.

People began to spot the creature in the wild. This photo was submitted to Hyperbole and a Half's Facebook page by Giovanna Alexis Urbina Anderson.

The creature was enshrined on The University of Waikato's high-performance computing cluster called Symphony, seen here posing with Jessica Thompson.

Klara just began embroidering in late 2010, and she likes to embroider alot. She said as much in her stitching!

Reddit member Shynee made this one as a Christmas gift for a friend. She drew the pattern out on a piece of wrapping paper and cut up a half of a yard of fur. Fellow Redditor Allie Brosh dropped in to convey her approval.

Irina-Gabriela Rus received this handmade ornament as a gift. It adds alot to a Christmas tree!

The very few people who received handmade alots for Christmas can consider themselves to be appreciated. Alot. However virtual, the alot is in no danger of becoming an endangered species.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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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.”