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The Golden Lobe Awards!

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by Maggie Koerth-Baker, Ethan Trex, Jenny Drapkin, and Mangesh Hattikudur

Forget the Nobel Prize, the Fields Medal, the Grammys, the Emmys and the Oscars. The only awards worth winning are Golden Lobes — the super-special awards we hand out in mental_floss magazine whenever there are worthy nominees. With the Golden Globes happening tonight, we figured now was a good time to look back at some past Golden Lobe winners.

Creepiest Reality TV Show Idea

Das Dorf (The Village)

What would some people give for 15 minutes of fame? Try their entire lives. In 2004, more than 26,000 people willingly applied for Big Brother: Das Dorf, a German spin-off of the popular reality show that centers around locking a pack of histrionic strangers in a house together for several hundred days. The fine print? The new show, which premiered in March 2005, was supposed to last a lot longer than a year. In fact, the producers built a whole village for the set, where contestants were supposed to work, engage in orchestrated class struggles, and hopefully, get down to baby-making. The plan: To keep the show going indefinitely. Luckily for the future of all humanity, the show failed to find an audience. Das Dorf was mercifully canceled in February 2006.

Honorable Mention: Susunu! Denpa Sh?nen

A man is locked inside an apartment and commanded to strip naked. The apartment is empty, except for a large stack of postcards. To be permitted to leave, he must raise 1 million yen (about $8,000) by using the postcards to apply for free offers and sweepstakes. Also, he’s only allowed to feed, clothe, and entertain himself using his prize winnings. Amazingly, this reality TV plot captured the hearts and minds of the Japanese in the late 1990s. For more than a year, about 17 million viewers tracked the man’s progress every Sunday night. His name was Nasubi, and his winnings were impressive—including free lobsters, steaks, and vacuum cleaners. Oddly, he never acquired any clothing, so a computer-generated eggplant covered his genitalia for the duration of the program. Although his naked “winning dance” became all the rage in Japan, Nasubi later said he felt great despair and dreamed of escape almost every day.

Honorable Mention:The Big Donor Show

Purporting to be a real contest in which three kidney patients vie for the healthy kidney of a terminally ill woman, this Dutch show aired to moralistic jeers in the spring of 2007. But there was a twist. The “donor” was actually an actress, and the potential recipients were real kidney patients who’d signed on knowing there was no kidney to win. The point? To beef up awareness for organ donation and, perhaps, to prove that reality shows can occasionally be used for good as well as evil.

Nerdiest Beer

Midas Touch Golden Elixir

Illustration by Dongyun Lee

Of the hundreds of bottles of beer on the wall, only one provides a history lesson in every pour. And for that, you can thank brewmaster Sam Calagione and molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern. For the past decade, these Indiana Joneses of the brewing community have dedicated themselves to whipping up the tastiest beers in history—all of history—and they’ve got the archaeological evidence to back it up.

The story starts in 1997, when McGovern began investigating crockery samples from the tomb of King Mita, the Turkish royal who inspired the King Midas myths. After running a chemical analysis on some of the king’s cups, McGovern realized that the man with the golden touch liked his ale. Determined to figure out what the king’s beer tasted like, he took the analysis to Sam Calagione of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. Together, the pair sought to reconstruct the 2,700-year-old beverage using authentic ingredients such as Muscat grapes, saffron, and honey. The result? An ancient ale they dubbed Midas Touch Golden Elixir.

This old-fashioned beverage has become a modern-day hit. Dogfish Head describes the drink as “somewhere between wine and mead.” But the beverage isn’t just popular at bars; it’s also a hit with critics. The drink nabbed a silver medal at the 2005 Great American Beer Festival and a bronze at the 2008 World Beer Cup. The success has also inspired Calagione and McGovern to dig deeper for historical recipes. Today, Dogfish Head offers an entire Ancient Ales series. The line includes Chateau Jiahu, based on a spiced beer found in 9,000-year-old crockery from northern China, and an Aztec beer called Theobroma, which was recreated using residue from 3,000-year-old pottery in Honduras. The former contains rice flakes and chrysanthemum flowers; the latter boasts notes of cocoa, chili, and annatto. And while we have no idea what annatto is, we’re not questioning it. Each sip just makes us happy that history is repeating itself.

Sneakiest Charity

Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy

For most charities, a $100 donation is a small, if welcome, drop in the bucket. But for the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy, it’s enough to work miracles.

The group got its start in 2005, when writer Courtney Martin received a six-figure book advance and decided she wanted to give a portion of it to charity. Rather than just writing a check, she gave nine friends $100 bills with the directive to use the cash for creative acts of kindness. Thus, the Secret Society was born.

It may not be the Red Cross, but what the Secret Society lacks in size, it makes up for in pure whimsy. One “secret agent” spread 400 quarters on a school playground before recess and then watched as the children marveled at their good fortune. Another stood on a sidewalk and offered passersby $1 apiece to have a pleasant one-on-one chat with a stranger. Yet another agent enlisted the help of friends around the country to drop 10,000 pennies on the ground in various places, just so lucky folks could find them later. The agents had so much fun trying to brighten strangers’ days that they began recruiting others to join them.

But not everyone is thinking about the short-term. One man deposited his $100 in an interest-bearing account and then wrote a letter to his great-grandchildren telling them to give the pile of cash (and all that accumulated interest) to charities in the year 2100.

Beneficiaries of the charity are occasionally skeptical. (One agent had trouble giving away free umbrellas during a rainstorm.) Still, the idea of small-scale creative giving has captured the imaginations of do-gooders around the country. The Society now has chapters in New York, California, and Georgia. Using novel ideas to generously spend a $100 bill? We’re pretty sure Ben Franklin would approve.

Best Use of a Conch Shell by a Marine Mammal

William the Concherer

Illustration by Dongyun Lee

If you think all those show dolphins at Sea World are bright, check out the brains on William the Concherer. William is a bottlenose dolphin in Western Australia that catches his fish using a conch shell. Scientists the world over have been stunned by his special technique. William waits for a fish to swim into his shell and then races to the surface with it. After giving the shell a few stiff shakes to stun the fish, he dumps the shell’s contents into his mouth and gobbles up his meal.

Researchers call this fishing behavior “conching,” and it’s unbelievably rare. In 25 years of observation, scientists have only logged seven confirmed sightings. But William is particularly skilled at it. He modifies his tools, changing the shape of his shells to make them better-suited for fishing. It also seems that William may be eating higher quality food than his fellow dolphins. Tests of William’s blood have shown that he has a different fatty-acid profile than dolphins that don’t conch, suggesting that his technique allows him to eat much healthier fish.

Craziest Rumor that Turned Out To Be True

The Existence of the Duck-billed Platypus

Furry, egg-laying, and web-footed, platypuses were noticed pretty quickly by the native aborigines of Australia. But despite flaunting their weirdness all over the continent, the platypus went unnoticed and unappreciated by Europeans. That is, until the tail end of the 18th century, when the British Empire turned Australia into one big, oversized penitentiary. Almost overnight, the island acquired a large, felonious European population, which quickly sent home reports of the fantastic creatures they’d found there. By the mid-1790s, the first descriptions of what would later be called the platypus reached European shores. Naturally, nobody believed it.

Then, in 1798, British Museum zoologist George Shaw received a cask filled with liquid preservative and one dead platypus. Despite the evidence, Shaw still suspected shenanigans. Apparently, he cut the unfortunate creature open and peeled and prodded the skin around the bill—feeling certain he would discover that it had been artificially sewn on. But even after Shaw became fully convinced, many of his colleagues remained dubious. According to one source, a prominent British surgeon challenged Shaw’s findings, dismissing the platypus as nothing more than a practical joke pulled off by Chinese sailors.

Worst First Week on the Job

That Guy From Mizuho Securities in Tokyo

On December 8, 2005, Japanese trading company Mizuho Securities made a huge financial blunder—or rather, its young new employee did. The newbie intended to sell a single share of stock for 610,000 yen, but instead sold 610,000 shares for one yen each. Yikes. Worse, there were only about 14,500 shares of the company available for sale. All told, the affair cost the company an estimated 40 billion yen ($340 million) and plunged the Japanese stock market into a day of crazed anarchy. We can’t find any info on what happened to the (we assume) ex-employee, but we do know that the president of the Tokyo Stock Exchange ended up stepping down.

Noblest Weekend Project

Chen Si

Illustration by Dongyun Lee

The 4-mile bridge that spans the Yangtze River in Nanjing, China, is an engineering marvel. But like many tall structures, it attracts its share of suicide jumpers. By some estimates, at least one depressed citizen leaps from the bridge every week. Amazingly, that number would be even higher if not for one committed guardian angel named Chen Si. Mondays through Fridays, he works at a transportation company. But on the weekends, Chen convinces people not to jump.

Chen’s career as a lifesaver began in 2003, when he first heard about the horrifying number of people leaping from the bridge. Armed with little more than a cell phone, a moped, and a pair of binoculars, he decided to patrol the bridge and talk jumpers down from the rails. During the past seven years, he’s proven to be startlingly effective. By the end of 2010, Chen estimated that he’d saved nearly 200 people from taking the plunge.

How does he do it? First, Chen identifies those who are likely to jump. “It is very easy to recognize,” he claims. “A person walks without spirit.” Sometimes, however, the clues are less mystical. Once, Chen sniffed out a jumper after noticing the man had on very expensive shoes but no socks—a giveaway that he didn’t intend to walk home.

If Chen sees someone who looks suicidal, he rushes to their side to get them to back off the ledge. One key to his success is that he’s willing to do anything to stop a jumper. Often, he’ll begin with a comforting talk, simply reminding the person that no matter what they’re going through, the leap isn’t worth it. But when jumpers are combative, Chen—a large, stout man—isn’t afraid to tackle them. In his mind, a cut or a black eye is a small price to pay for saving a life.

Chen’s job isn’t over when the would-be jumpers are back on the safe side of the guardrails, either. Sometimes he takes them to lunch, other times he’s spent years helping them straighten out their lives. He’s gotten unemployed jumpers new jobs, and he’s helped people in debt pay off loan sharks. Many of the jumpers return to the bridge—not to jump, but to thank Chen for his help.

These stories originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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