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Niche Blogs: Emergency Occupations

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The occasional niche blog list we have for you is usually full of entertainments and distractions. This list is a little different. All kinds of folks start personal blogs, as online journals of their everyday experiences, which for many include their professions. It's a way to vent, to educate others, and to share stories that need to be told. And we can learn a lot by reading the diaries of people we depend on, but who we might never get to know personally. I find all these blogs fascinating, but don't expect a lot of photographs because these professionals will not compromise the privacy of those they serve.

1. 911 This Better Be Good

An anonymous emergency dispatcher writes about the strange calls she gets at her job in the blog 911 This Better Be Good. Some calls are funny, some are baffling, and many of them make you weep for the future of mankind. What's really impressive is that she never, ever seems to be short on material to write about.

Note to all those who enjoy using real handcuffs: Don't lose the keys and be forced to go to the police station. Especially if you or your partner aren't able to get fully dressed again. We will all be laughing for the rest of our shift.

2. Trauma Queen

The response from 911 is to send the appropriate service, usually police, firefighters, or paramedics. Kal is a paramedic in Edinburgh, Scotland, who writes about his experiences on the blog Trauma Queen. He says he "practices a little emergency medicine, though most of the time he’s a glorified cabbie." Kal writes about topics other than his job, but the many stories about his work are fascinating, from the sick people who will touch your heart to the regulars who make you sad to the occasional nail-biting life-or-death trauma story.

3. ZDoggMD

ZDoggMD is a blog maintained by Dr. ZDogg and Dr. Harry, physicians and comedians who bring you medical advice that you can laugh at, or entertainment that might save your life. Whichever way you prefer to look at it, you'll find something to enjoy. My personal favorite of their many videos is this Michael Jackson parody song to remind men to check their testicles for lumps.

4. The Angry Pharmacist

What is The Angry Pharmacist so angry about? Drug addicts, difficult doctors, entitled customers, endless red tape, insurance companies, impatient patients, clueless clients, and assorted evils that accompany the pharmacy business that you may never have known about. After reading his cathartic rants, you'll be more aware of how much self-control your pharmacist shows on the job.

5. Motorcop

The blog Motorcop has the tagline "If you got stopped... You deserved it." The author is a police officer who patrols on a motorcycle in California, but that's all the identifying information you'll get. Motorcop has stories of traffic enforcement, but also posts on other police work, tips on staying legal and dealing with police, fictional stories, and some personal posts. There are even some entertainment posts and collaborations with the paramedic blogger The Happy Medic.

6. Midwife with a Knife

Midwife with a Knife is written by a perinatologist, which is "An obstetrical subspecialist concerned with the care of the mother and fetus at higher-than-normal risk for complications." Right there you know she has some stories to tell. In addition to obstetrical stories, she tackles other medical subjects and her personal life. Yes, you'll also see more pictures of her young dog, Zoe.

7. Fosterhood in NYC

Foster parents step in for the neediest of all- children whose parents cannot provide the care and love they require. People step up and take in nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, but there are children who don't have any relatives they can turn to. Fosterhood in NYC is written by a woman who took in three children over time through New York's social services department. Fostering is way more than parenting, because in addition to normal childhood stuff, you have to deal with the damage a foster child has already sustained, parents who maintain contact (however troublesome), and the government bureaucracy that makes this kind of service so difficult. For example, this post on the simple act of getting clothing for the child will leave you shaking your head. And then there is the heartbreak of eventually saying goodbye to a child you love. Start here to follow the stories of individual children.

8. Emergiblog

Emergiblog is about the life of an emergency room nurse. Kim McAllister has been a nurse for 33 years, twenty of those in emergency. In addition to stories from the ER, she writes about the changing field of nursing, the politics of the profession, and medical stories from all over.

9. Midwife for the End of Life

There are some professions that most of us would be too squeamish to ever consider taking up, but when the need arises, we are glad someone did. Midwife for the End of Life is written by Melaina, a hospice nurse. She tackles the big subjects of end-of-life care, the physical process of death, dealing with death, dignity for the dying, medical ethics, insurance, funerals, mourning, and stories of people she has cared for. These are subjects we may want to avoid, but we will all confront sooner or later.

Most of these blogs have links to others in the same profession who also keep blogs. With a little looking, you may find someone you'll want to follow on a regular basis.

See more lists of strange and interesting niche blogs.

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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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Library of Congress
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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.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

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.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

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.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

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.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

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.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

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.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

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.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

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.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

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.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

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.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

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

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.

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