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He Could Have Discovered America, but He Wanted to See His Parents

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When we talk about the discovery of this great nation, we usually talk about Christopher Columbus, whose voyages sparked widespread awareness of the Americas in Europe (from which came sustained exploration, conquest, and colonization of the New World), and Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer known as the first European to land in continental North America.

A guy we don’t usually talk about is Bjarni Herjólfsson, who could have snatched Erikson’s “First!” honor away, but chose to go hang out with his parents, instead.

Family Bonds

One of the early Norse settlers of Iceland was Bárdi Herjólfsson. His son was Herjólfr Bárdarson, and his son was Bjarni Herjólfsson. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Bjarni was a seafarer from an early age, and became a merchant whose voyages brought him wealth and fame. He was also a devoted son, and when he wasn't sailing around the North Atlantic, he would spend his winter down time alternately in Norway and with his parents in Iceland.

One summer, when Bjarni was away on a trading voyage, Herjólfr decided, like his father before him, to settle new land. He and his wife, Thorgerdr, joined Erik the Red on a journey to Greenland and made a new home there.

When Bjarni returned to Iceland, he found his father had sold his land and sailed west. Bjarni became upset and refused to unload his cargo or disembark from the ship. When the crew asked him what was going on, he told them he intended to continue his usual practice and spend the winter months with his parents. He would sail to Greenland, a place he’d never been, with no map, going only by directions given by some Icelanders who’d made the trip. His crew agreed to go with him and they soon set off heading west.

An Unexpected Journey

After a few days at sea, the sailors lost sight of all land, and wind and fog caused them to lose their bearings. After several more days of pushing on, blind and lost, the weather improved and they reset their course. They spotted land again, but didn’t know what it was. It didn’t match the description of Greenland they’d gotten in Iceland, and it didn’t look like any other place they knew.

Bjarni decided to sail in closer to get a better look. The coastline they saw was thickly wooded, with low hills. No mountains. No glaciers. No great rocks. It didn’t look like what they’d heard of Greenland, and the alien shore was of no interest to Bjarni. He ordered the ship back out to sea and they continued on, keeping the land on their port side.

After two more days, they saw land again. As they got closer to shore, they saw that the land was flat and covered in forest. No glaciers or mountains this time, either. The crew suggested they go ashore. Their wind had died down, and they were in need of wood and water, anyway. It wasn’t Greenland, Bjarni told the crew, and they wouldn’t be stopping.

Back out to sea they went with the land to port, and after a few more days, they saw unknown land a third time. It was high, rocky, and glaciered. Certainly, this had to be Greenland. Nope, said Bjarni, this land looked worthless to him too. Without lowering the sails, they moved right along.

Once more they went back out to sea and headed away from the shore. After four days of sailing they saw a fourth landmass. The crew, no doubt getting a sense of deja vu, asked their captain if he thought this might be their destination.

Yes, he said, this place looked very much like what he’d heard about Greenland and here they would land.

And so they did, landing, conveniently, at a cape that was basically Herjólfr’s back yard. Bjarni reunited with his parents, gave up his life at sea and retired to their home.

Land Ahoy

Unbeknownst to him or to anyone else at the time, those strange lands that Bjarni had refused to stop at were Canadian shores. Historians think that the first hilly, wooded land was Newfoundland, the second flat, wooded land was Labrador, and the third rocky place was Baffin Island.

Not only had Bjarni come within spitting distance of the New World and then turned around without checking it out, he practically handed over his place in the history books to someone else. After his father died, Bjarni resumed voyaging, and made reports of his Greenland trip when he returned to Iceland and Norway. Leif Ericson (son of Eric the Red) got wind of the story and went to Bjarni to learn more. Leif then purchased the ship Bjarni had made the voyage in and set out with 35 men to see the lands that Bjarni had described.

Leif became the first European to land in the mainland Americas and the first to establish a settlement there. Bjarni, meanwhile, got lost in history after selling his ship. Not much is known about him other than the fact that his curiosity did not get the better of him.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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.”