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6 Amazing Plots from Bill Nye Fan Fiction

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Today is Bill Nye’s birthday—and to commemorate the occasion, we delved into the sometimes steamy (let's just say Doc Brown is involved), always wacky world of fan fiction based on everyone's favorite science guy. (We tried to keep it clean, but you might want to avoid sharing these stories with younger readers anyway.) In the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson's character in Jurassic Park, hold on to your butts—it's about to get weird.

1. The Thing With the Soda Bottles

In this Bill Nye/Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog mash-up, Bill—who is Dr. Horrible’s uncle—somehow manages to stop a rogue tornado, no thanks to Captain Hammer.

"Bill Nye?" Captain hammer laughed, putting his (strong) hands on his (slim, manly) hips. "That geezer? I didn't know he was still around. Does he still do the thing with the soda bottles?"

That was the last damned straw. "Bill Nye is a genius," Dr. Horrible snapped, getting into Captain Hammer's face and absolutely not wondering why Captain Hammer smelled like lilacs. "That man is a ninja of science and you will show some respect."

2. Bill Nye’s Disastrous Wedding

Bill is all set to marry the lady of his dreams—Jill Hurl, the science girl—with his best friends by his side. And all is going according to plan … until Jill asks Bill to take her last name, and Harry Potter shows up.

He made his way down the aisle, with several of his friends in the seats. There was his favorite poster of Albert Einstein on the left; on his right, the color spectrum; and of course, ahead of him was his best man, the glass beaker. He whispered to the beaker, "I never could have gotten this far without you, buddy." The beaker stood motionless, a tie with blue bubbles on it wrapped around its neck.

3. Bill Nye Disobeys the Laws of Gravity

In this short cautionary tale, Bill learns about the perils of ignoring gravity by leaning his chair back too far.

Bill didn't want to obey the script for once. He wanted to tip his chair back really far, and at the same time not have it fall. Bill tried to tip his chair back, and he was putting his hands behind his head. He was just about to fall backwards and get a concussion! Bill stopped himself and grabbed the table in front of him, but he pulled the table into the air…

4. Bill Nye And Dance Dance Revolution

Kids are starting to lose interest in science, so Bill tries to get them into it again by writing songs and forcing one of his band members to play Dance Dance Revolution.

"And you guys like sound, right? Y'all listenin' to ya iPods and EmPeeFree playas... listening to music and radio plays! Hey, I like music too! In fact... WE like music! That's right! We're so hip, we even have a camrecorder showing live footage from one of our backstage arcades and using it as a background! Hit it, Jerald!"

Just then, Bill whipped out a microphone, Amy jumped behind a piano, Moe got out his snare drum, and that one other girl we can't remember played a shark. They jammed out to a classical piece they made up called "We're still cool" and as they sang and played that tune, the last band member had to start his part.

5. Bill Nye: The Episodes Not Released To Children

This three-chapter epic features Bill screwing up experiments—and scarring his young audience members in the process. So much so that his assistants are replaced by a narwhal and the audience becomes a sea of Harry Potter cardboard cutouts. Also, Michael Jackson makes an appearance.

"Now any volunteers for our next experiment?" said Bill into the audience.

Silence.

"How about you Daniel Radcliff?" suggest Nye pointing to one of the cut outs in the audience.

"No? It's okay- don't be shy-" said Bill dragging the cut out on set.

He placed it in a chair.

"Now just act natural as I demonstrate." said Nye, "Now- as I was saying the second law: is that there is an opposite but equal reaction for every action, so as I drop THIS anchor onto Daniel Radcliff's head, observe the reaction!"

BANG. The anchor hit the cardboard Harry square on his forehead as the cutout snapped in half and the anchor created an indent on the floor.

6. Bill Nye the Not So Science Guy

Bill is retired, and enjoying it—until he gets a mysterious phone call.

In the dingy living room, by the old stone fireplace, Bill Nye (the science guy) was roasting marshmallows and bacon on a wrought-iron poker, and sipping on a cup of hot chocolate. He grinned and sighed, his wrinkles stretching, "Ah… This is the life! Bacon, marshmallows and a delicious, non-alcoholic beverage! No more slime, dead bugs, fecal matter…basically no more work-" his splendid thoughts were rudely interrupted by the ringing of his ancient telephone.

BRIIING! BRIIING! BRINNG-

Bill pouted sadly and dragged himself to the phone, smattering angrily like an elderly lady. "Hello? Bill Nye here." He was a little impatient; the caller didn't say anything right away. "I said, hello!" He was now angry. His right eye twitched; a vein grew on his temple.

"Seven days…" said the raspy voice on the other end.

Happy 57th birthday, Bill!

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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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