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Let's Paint the Town!

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The term "monochrome town" evokes an image of a dreary gray industrial area. It is not always so! There are places around the world where residents agree to brighten things up with one beautiful color for their community. And there are other places where the citizens get together for more than one color as well! Let's look at painted towns around the world.

Juzcar, Spain

A few months ago, Juzcar was just another picturesque village in the Andalusia region of Spain. Now the town is a particular shade of blue -Smurf blue! Sony Pictures selected Juzcar to host the premiere of the new movie Smurfs 3D, and turned it into a Smurf Village for the occasion. Sony provided 4,000 liters of paint and a dozen painters to cover the town in Smurf blue. Sony has also agreed to pay the cost to return the town to its original colors after September, but some locals are considering keeping the blue. After all, tourists seem to like it. Image by Flickr user Jose Luis Canorea.

Chefchaoen, Morocco

Juzcar is finding that blue is a nice color for a town, but other towns knew that already. The ancient town of Chefchaoen in Morocco served as a refuge for Jews during the Spanish Reconquista in the Middle Ages. Jewish refugees who fled Europe during the 1930s revived their neighborhoods in Chefchaoen by using a blue tinted whitewash on their homes. The color caught on, and now much of the town appears washed in a light blue rinse. Image by Flickr user Natasha Wheatland.

Jodhpur, India

In the desert state of Rajasthan in India, the city of Jodhpur stands out as a patch of blue. The reason for the blue color is uncertain, but many think that the upper caste Brahmins painted their homes blue to separate them from the lower castes, but like all good ideas, the decor spread to other neighborhoods. Blue may have been chosen as an opposite to the desert surrounding the city, but that's just a theory. Image by Flickr user Michael Foley.

Izamal, Mexico

The great Monastery of Izamal is the centerpiece of the town of Izamal, Mexico. The monastery is painted yellow, and the majority of the other public buildings and businesses match, as well as many homes. It is known as "The Yellow City." Image by Flickr user Keith Walbolt.

Falun, Sweden

In the case of Falun, Sweden, there is a very good reason to "paint the town red," so to speak. Falun is the center of Sweden's copper mining region, and one of the byproducts of that mining is a type of paint developed there known as Falu Red. The red comes from the hematite in the paint, and it became known worldwide as an effective wood preservative, which is why it became a traditional color for barns. Falun homes were painted red beginning in the 16th century. Image by Flickr user Andrew Stawarz.


Prague in the Czech Republic is known for its photogenic red roofs. In the year 1689, a huge fire engulfed the city, destroying many of its buildings, which were then rebuilt in Baroque style with red clay roof tiles. Although the city now boasts many architectural styles, the traditional red roofs are usually included in any renovation or new construction. Image by Flickr user Sebastian Anthony.

Vercorin, Switzerland

A little creativity goes a long way, even with more conventional housing colors. Two years ago, artist Felice Varini convinced the people of Vercorin, Switzerland to let him paint arcs on their homes. The result looked like a jumble from most angles, but from a very specific spot, this optical illusion emerged.

Ramenskoye, Russia

The buildings of Ramenskoye, near Moscow, are a riot of color. A large block of apartment buildings are painted with brightly-colored rainbows and scenes, but there is very little information about how they came about. Image by Sergei 'Sturman' Poletaev via Wikipedia.

There are quite a few other colorful cities and towns well worth checking out, where there's a tradition of painting homes and public buildings in various bright colors, such as Riomaggiore, Italy, Longyearbyen, Norway, and Lima, Peru. Look for them on your next world tour or right here on the internet!

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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.”