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14 Classic Distractions for the Internet Newcomer

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Every once in a while, I run across an old article, video, or link of some kind and think, "Oh yeah, that was awesome! Too bad it's so old," because my job is to post the newest and hottest links every day. If I post something more than a couple of months old, I'll get complaints. However, it's not really old to someone who hasn't seen it. After all, there are young folks who only use the internet for Facebook and Wikipedia, and more older folks are going online for the first time every day. I put some of those links together as a list of old hits that everyone should see sometime, that could be used as a way to introduce new users to the wonders of the internet, at least the fairly tame yet funny parts. Here are a few suggestions for freshman surfers.

1. Mark Longmire's Romance Novel Covers

As many times as I've seen (and used) Mark Longmire's Romance Novel Covers, they never fail to make me laugh. He's got some other old but wonderful features at his site.

2. Nose

Pick your nose online? Well, just tweeze the hair, OK? This was so nonsensical that everyone loved it. Some folks say there is something satisfying about plucking nose hairs, and artist Jogchem Niemandsverdriet gives you a way to do that without the anticipated pain. Oh yeah, he has a lot of other weird stuff online for you.

3. Red Square

Games are getting more sophisticated by the day, but if you've got an idea that is simple to comprehend but hard to master, you've got a classic. The Red Square game will drive you crazy no matter how many times you try it. All you need to do is survive. Hold the red square and avoid being hit by the blue squares. I usually last about ten seconds, but I have to go back and try again a few times.

4. Viking Kittens

Joel Veitch created the flash animation Viking Kittens in 2002 which became such a bandwidth hog that it is no longer hosted at his Rathergoood site. There are several other sites that host it, but they have appeared and disappeared over the years. If the linked site stops hosting, you can search for another. Or see it on YouTube. Jonti Picking's Badgers is another flash sequence everyone should be familiar with.

5. The Worm Within

Do you have a strong stomach? There are no photographs in the story The Worm Within, (just some cute illustrations) but it is a long, gross read about a tapeworm Vincent Eaton encountered in Belgium. Click to advance to the next page. It is followed by 27 pages of submitted personal parasite stories.

6. Amateur

Young Norwegian filmmaker Lasse Gjertsen charmed us all with his video Amateur in 2006. He is not a musician (or was not at the time); this was all done by video editing. Gjertsen became the internet's golden boy for a while. All his videos are worth checking out.

7. Zoomquilt

Warning: this link may make you lose track of time. The Zoomquilt is a beautiful example of infinite zoom, constructed in 2004 as a collaborative art project. Since then, The Zoomquilt 2 has been added. After you click start, use your mouse and mouse button to zoom in at your own speed. Or out.

8. Backstroke of the West

Although it has just a little NSFW text, Backstroke of the West became a classic because 1. it was real, and 2. it was ridiculous. And still is, seven years later. It's a simple look at how bootleg videos get mis-translated more than once, resulting in nonsense subtitles. Therefore, Revenge of the Sith somehow became Backstroke of the West. This subtitled bootleg movie was the source of the Do Not Want meme.

9. The Singing Horses

The Singing Horses are both cute and fun. Click each horse to make it sing or stop. The French site Incredibox works along the same lines with human singers, but is more involved and sometime a bit more difficult to figure out. But you can do it!

10. The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook

October 4

Still working on the omelet. There have been stumbling blocks. I keep creating omelets one after another, like soldiers marching into the sea, but each one seems empty, hollow, like stone. I want to create an omelet that expresses the meaninglessness of existence, and instead they taste like cheese. I look at them on the plate, but they do not look back. Tried eating them with the lights off. It did not help. Malraux suggested paprika.

The Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook was originally published in a Portland alternative newspaper in 1987, but survives for everyone everywhere to read on the internet. It never would have reached such a wide audience otherwise.

11. Instants

Need some sound effects for your life? Instants is a soundboard that has everything you could possibly use to punctuate your conversations. I drove my kids crazy with this for a couple of days and then forgot it. Since then, the sheer size of the collection makes it slower to load and more difficult to use than it was a couple of years ago. But now they have subgroupings, and the effects I used most are in the "Real Life!" category, which I would recommend to anyone. Warning: if you don't recognize the label, the sound effect may turn out to be NSFW.

12. Daft Hands

Daft Hands is a 2007 performance piece by Austin Hall to the song "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" by Daft Punk. The original video now has 53 million views, but comments indicate that people still see it for the first time every day. This video inspired other versions and parodies, particularly on the comedy theme of "Daft Bodies." The original hands video was done in one take with no special effects.

13. iDaft

If you like that song, you'll love the iDaft. It's a sound board constructed from the parts of "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." Punching the buttons makes you feel like you have some musical talent even if you don't.

14. Samorost

Samorost is an intricate adventure game by Amanita Design. It was created by Jakub Dvorský in 2003 while studying design in Prague. There are no instructions; you have to figure out what to do on your own, but the challenge and the artwork make it very worth your while. Samorost 2 followed a couple of years later, but only the first chapter is available free.

Of course, this list only scratches the surface of the rich pickings for a new internet surfer. Are any of these sites new to you? What are your favorite "internet oldies"? What games, videos, art, and articles hold up well over time? Do you have other suggestions of classic web entertainment that everyone should see sooner or later?

See also: 6 Founding Members of the Internet Zoo and 10 Landmark Moments in YouTube History.

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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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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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