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The Science of "Breaking the Seal"

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If you like beer, and like it in large quantities, this might be a familiar scenario: You sit down at the bar, get a beer and drink it. You drink another one. Maybe a third. Things have gone well up to this point, but now you have to pee. So you go. Once you return to your seat and keep drinking, though, it feels like you’ve crossed a point of no return, and you have to pee again and again.

You’ve "broken the seal." After that initial pee, you seem to have to run to the bathroom every 15 to 20 minutes for the rest of the night, and the urine just won’t stop flowing. What’s going on?

Part of what makes you pee so much while boozing is that alcohol inhibits arginine vasopressin, also known as antidiuretic hormone or ADH. ADH is made in the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, and then stored and released from the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. Its job is to conserve water in the body by reducing its loss in urine. It binds to receptors on the kidneys and promotes water reabsorption, a decrease in the volume of urine sent to the bladder, and excretion of more concentrated urine.

Alcohol throws a wrench into the works, though, and blocks certain nerve channels that help get ADH secreting out into your system. Without ADH carrying on about conserving water, the kidneys don’t reabsorb water as easily and excess water winds up getting dumped into urine to leave the body. With alcohol keeping ADH from doing its job, you produce a lot more water-diluted urine, which fills the bladder quickly and makes you have to pee more often.

So, there’s really no seal to break, no dam to crack open. If anything, the damage was done when you took your first drink and started suppressing your ADH, not when you took your first pee.

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But how come you can hold your pee just fine until that first bathroom break, and then it seems you have to go constantly?

First, it takes a little bit of time for alcohol to suppress ADH and for the kidneys to ramp up the water works. When you crack open your first beer, you may have some urine in your bladder already, but also some ADH in your system to keep things from getting out of hand. As you continue to drink, though, your ADH levels drop and your urine production increases. By the time your bladder has filled and you're ready to go to the john, you’ve probably had a few more drinks. Your ADH is more suppressed and your kidneys are working at full tilt, so you’re going to have to go more often.

Additionally, alcoholic beverages can be a bladder irritant for many people and the carbonation of drinks like beer and champagne can cause gas and pressure that contribute to that irritation. As your bladder fills up again after the initial pee, all that irritation can create a very strong urge to pee some more and make your bladder feel fuller than it really is, sending you running to the bathroom over and over again throughout the night.

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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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