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The Quick 10: A Christmas Carol

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It was 168 years ago this week that Tiny Tim and Ebeneezer Scrooge made their debut. In 1843, Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic was published in England. Despite the fact that it's been around for ages, there are a few things you might not know about A Christmas Carol:

1. A Christmas Carol must hold some sort of record for being the fastest classic tale ever written. Dickens started writing in October of 1843 and finished up before December. He left enough time for illustrator John Leech to do his thing and then it was printed, published and on bookshelves by December 17.

2. Based on notes from Dickens' original manuscript, Tiny Tim was almost Little Fred. Dickens scholars think "Fred" was a reference to Dickens’s younger brother Frederick, another brother named Alfred who died relatively young, and a sickly nephew. He ended up using the name for Scrooge's nephew instead.

3. When Dickens’ publishers were unimpressed with his idea for a short holiday novella, Charles decided to take matters into his own hands. He arranged the whole publishing process himself, from editing to printing, binding and advertising. He kept the price low so the masses could afford it. His finances suffered as a result: Dickens had expected to make about £1,000 from the first printing but ended up barely clearing £137. Though the book was a hit, the price was just too good to turn a profit.

4. Spoiler alert - that is, if a 168-year-old book has spoilers (This just in: Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet get married) - Tiny Tim dies. At least, he does in the version of What May Come to Pass presented by the Ghost of Christmas Future. The scene is so very sad that a critic at a public reading of the story in 1868 commented that his death "brought out so many pocket handkerchiefs that it looked as if a snow-storm had somehow gotten into the hall without tickets."

5. The next time you wonder why we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Christmas,” think of Charles Dickens. Though “merry” was in use in the 1800s, Dickens’ repeated use of the phrase in the book really popularized it. The story was such a smash hit that the greeting became standard.

6. If you’ve ever been inspired to go out and do good deeds after enjoying A Christmas Carol, well, you’re in good company. In 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson read the book and wrote to a friend, “I want to go out and comfort someone; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money - I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”

7. Since that original publishing that Dickens managed to scrape together by himself, A Christmas Carol has never been out of print.

8. We’re never officially told what Tiny Tim’s illness was. Time magazine speculated that it may have been distal renal tubular acidosis, a type of kidney failure; another theory is that the little lad had rickets due to his lack of Vitamin D.

9. Both Dickens and Washington Irving shared an idealistic view of Christmas and mutually admired one another. I wonder how they would feel about “A Sleepy Hollow Christmas Carol.

10. Even great leaders thought A Christmas Carol contained some lessons worth sharing. In a speech he gave just three days before his assassination, JFK quoted a passage from the story:

“I hope it is not rushing the season to recall to you the passage from Dickens' 'Christmas Carol' in which Ebenezer Scrooge is terrified by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and Scrooge, appalled by Marley's story of ceaseless wandering, cries out, 'But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.' And the ghost of Marley, his legs bound by a chain of ledger books and cash boxes, replies, 'Business? Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.’

"Members and guests of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, whether we work in the White House or the State House or in a house of industry or commerce, mankind is our business. And if we work in harmony, if we understand the problems of each other, and the responsibilities that each of us bears, then surely the business of mankind will prosper.

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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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