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6 Creative Ways Countries Have Tried to Up Their Birth Rates

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When the Soviet Union took a census of Georgia in 1989, more than 5 million people lived there. But by 2014, the population in the former Soviet republic had plummeted to 3.7 million people, the Telegraph reports. To avoid what it calls a “demographic catastrophe,” a non-profit organization called the Demographic Development Fund recently announced that it's launching a tool familiar to singles the world over: A dating website.

The DDF is running a census of single men and women—including those who are divorced or have lost a spouse—and are entering everything from their height and weight to zodiac sign into a database in hopes of making love connections. Sounds crazy, but a nationwide dating website is just one of many creative ways countries and organizations have encouraged citizens to get it on.

1. GET DOWN DURING VACATION // DENMARK

In 2014, with Denmark's birthrate at a 27-year low, an ad campaign from Spies Travel asked Danes to book a romantic city holiday and "Do It For Denmark." According to the company, Danes have 46 percent more sex on vacation than they do at home, and 10 percent of Danish kids are conceived on vacation. To sweeten the deal, Spies Travel told customers to book with their “ovulation discount,” and if they could prove they conceived on vacation, they’d win baby supplies for three years (and a child-friendly vacation). Spies Travel didn’t stop there: In 2015, they unveiled their “Spies Parent Purchase,” in which hopeful future grandmas could buy active vacations for their adult children in hopes that they’d conceive a child on holiday. (The more sports you do, the more you want to do it, apparently.)

2. EAT MINTS AND MAKE BABIES ON NATIONAL NIGHT // SINGAPORE

Singapore aggressively tackled their low birth rate problem—with the help of mints. On August 9, 2012, Singapore authorities partnered with mint-peddlers Mentos (“The Freshmaker”) to put together “National Night,” a campaign meant to encourage Singaporean couples to let their “patriotism explode” and help the nation increase its 0.78 children per woman birth rate. The resulting ad went viral. “Singapore's population, it needs some increasing/So forget waving flags, August 9th we be freaking … I'm a patriotic husband, you're my patriotic wife, let's do our civic duty and manufacture life,” the smooth-voiced, minty-breathed rapper suggests. “The birth rate ain’t goin’ spike itself!”

But that’s not all: Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority also placed a limit on the number of small one-bedroom flats that could be built in an effort to curb the singleton lifestyle and encourage people to shack up and make babies.

3. GO HOME EARLY EVERY THIRD WEDNESDAY AND GET IT ON // SOUTH KOREA

South Korea’s birth rate has fallen to one of the lowest in the developed world, at 1.187 children per woman in 2013. The low birth rate is in part the fault of a government program to promote smaller families in the 1970s and ‘80s; but more recently, financial woes are more to blame for the baby slowdown—South Koreans have one of the highest household debt burdens in East Asia, at roughly 160 percent of income.

One of the biggest concerns that South Korean parents have is being able to pay for their children’s care and education, so the government is promising to greatly expand the network of low-cost governmental childcare facilities, and is actively trying to weaken the perception that a college degree is necessary for success.

The South Korean government is also taking other, more creative measures to encourage its citizens to procreate. In addition to the cash gifts and incentives offered to staff who have more than one child, in 2010, the South Korean government decided to turn off the lights in its offices at 7:30 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every month—which the government dubbed “Family Day”—to "help staff get dedicated to childbirth and upbringing." While the official in charge of the program acknowledged that going home early probably didn’t have a direct link to making more babies, every little bit helps.

4. HAVE A BABY, WIN A FRIDGE // RUSSIA

Russia’s population was shrinking dramatically after the fall of the Soviet Union, propelled by a low birth rate and high death rate. So, in 2007, the government declared September 12 National Day of Conception, in the hopes that giving couples the day off from work to do their civic duty would result in a baby spike nine months later, on Russia’s national day, June 12. Women who gave birth that day could win refrigerators, money, and even cars.

It seems to have worked—by 2013, Russia’s birth rate had surpassed America’s. That’s a big deal to the dying bear: Russia is already one of the most sparsely settled nations in the world, owing to its massive land size; in the 2000s, demographic experts were concerned that if this trend continued, Russia's population might sink below 100 million by 2050. In the run-up to his presidential campaign in 2011, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged to spend £33 billion to boost Russia’s birth rate by 30 percent over the next five years. Although Russia’s birth rate hasn’t noticeably increased since 2011 (that year, it was at 1.6 births per woman, and it has stayed at 1.7 since 2012—still a massive increase since the 1.2 births of 2000), the program does appear to have had some success, with years of demographic trends reversing and Russia showing steady population growth.

5. NO BABIES = HIGHER TAXES // ROMANIA

In the 1960s, Romania was approaching zero population growth—a terrifying prospect for a Communist nation that held the Marxist principle that economic health lay in a robust labor class. So, starting in 1966, the government took some drastic and chilling measures.

They chose the stick rather than the carrot. Though there were tax and monetary incentives to encourage people to have children, they also punished people for not having them: Childless men and women over the age of 25, regardless of marital status, were subject to a new tax that could be as much as 20 percent of their income. Divorce was also made incredibly difficult; in 1967, only 28 divorces were allowed, a precipitous decrease from the 26,000 the year before. Police were installed in hospitals to make sure that no illegal abortions were performed, and legal importation of birth control was halted.

It worked, at least in the short term. The baby bounce was significant—273,687 in 1966 to 527,764 in 1967—but lasted only as long as the police remained in hospitals. In the 1980s, the Nicolae Ceausescu regime again faced a declining birth rate and instituted even more draconian measures to raise it: Women were subjected to monthly gynecological exams to detect pregnancies in their earliest stage and to ensure that the pregnancies came to term. These exams were performed by “demographic command units” that would also interrogate childless individuals and couples about their sex lives. Access to abortion was made even more difficult; in 1985, the government declared that in order to be eligible for an abortion, regardless of the circumstances, a woman had to have had five children and all those children had to still be under her care, or be over 45. At the same time, the monetary incentives encouraging women to have children were barely enough to buy milk, under the country’s depressed economic conditions.

Pretty grim. The campaign to forcibly control Romanian women’s fertility ended with the overthrow of Ceausescu’s regime in the bloody revolution of 1989.

6. HANG OUT WITH A ROBOT BABY // JAPAN

In addition to a stagnating economy, Japan is suffering from a seriously low birth rate—so low that in 1000 years, one demographer claims, the Japanese will be extinct. The country’s fertility rate fell below two children per woman in 1975, and, as of 2015, was around 1.42. But that means that its elderly population is starting to outpace its young population. In 2012, toiletries company Unicharm said that sales of its adult diapers “slightly surpassed” baby diapers for the first time since the company moved into the elderly market in 1987.

The Japanese government, some critics claim, hasn’t done enough to address its low birth rate and in 2010, students at the University of Tsukuba stepped into the breach with Yotaro, a robot baby. Though he doesn’t exactly look like a real baby, he cries, sneezes, suffers that perpetually drippy nose that is instantly recognizable to any parent, giggles when tickled, and is calmed by his rattle. His creators are hoping that if he can spark some measure of parental emotion in the people who see him, maybe they’ll consider making a real baby. "A robot can't be human but it's great if this robot triggers human emotions, so humans want to have their own baby," said Hiroki Kunimura, the Yotaro project leader.

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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