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5 Surprising Uses for Stilts

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Most people think of stilts as something for circuses and kiddie parties, but they’ve been used in a number of strange ways since ancient times. In fact, stilts have a long, proud history of weirdness that continues today.

1. A Town Of Stilt Walkers

In the 19th century, Landes, France was a brushy wasteland that turned swampy whenever it rained. Locals dealt with this harsh environment by walking on stilts—everyone, from housewives to the mailman, had a pair.

Landes shepherds used these tchangues, or “big legs,” to direct their flocks. Wearing sleeveless fur jackets and berets, they maneuvered over the landscape with ease, using their walking sticks as a crook. When they rested, they sat on a tripod of the stilts and walking stick so they could watch their sheep from on high. To pass the time, they knitted.

Not surprisingly, Landesians were adept at stilt walking, able to pick up pebbles from the ground and run at fast speeds. When Empress Josephine passed through Landes in 1808, stilt walkers kept up with her carriage even though the horses were at full trot. With the 20th century, the region was transformed by forestation and better infrastructure and the need for stilts passed away, although Landes stilt dancing is still known in France.

2. Stilt Marathons

In 1891, a Landes shepherd named Sylvain Dornon stilt walked from Paris to Moscow in 58 days. It was the first of many stilt marathons. Others include 12-year-old Emma Disley scaling Wales' highest mountain on stilts in 1977, Saimaiti Yiming in China stilt walking 49 miles in one day in 2003, and Neil Sauter crossing Michigan to raise money for cerebral palsy in 2013.

The record for the longest stilt walk goes to Joe Bowen, who walked 3008 miles from LA to Kentucky in 1980. But he wasn’t the first person to stilt walk the country. In 1914, the Harrisburg Telegraph sent FE Wilvert from Pennsylvania to San Francisco on stilts. Wearing waterproof pants, a top hat, and a banner, Wilvert sent missives from cities on his route for the newspaper to publish. “You can bet your bottom dollar to a toothpick I’ll make it,” he told the Telegraph—and he did.

3. Stilt Jousting

For 600 years, Namur, Belgium has held a stilt jousting tournament called the Golden Stilt. Teams of jousters in red-and-white costumes try to take each other down by shoving, shoulder butting, poking, kicking, and knocking out their opponent’s stilts. The person still standing at the end wins.

Namur’s stilt jousting is all in fun, but there’s evidence it started out violently. In the Middle Ages, locals took to using stilts whenever the rivers flooded. At some point, stilt fighting became so common that the city banned it in 1411. Apparently, the ban didn’t stick and stilt jousting became an event, with stories of thousands of people competing in the town square. It’s a long tradition that Namur continues today.

4. Working on Stilts

Hop pickers, fruit pickers, window washers, and drywallers all use stilts to avoid messing with a ladder. And then there are the stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka.

For decades, these fishermen have climbed on stilts sticking up in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Suspended above the coral reef on a thin perch attached to the stilt, they use rods to catch herring and mackerel. This practice started after World War II, when fishermen began hanging on discarded iron pipes from the war to avoid disturbing the fish.

Although stilt fishing is attracting tourists to the region, the fishermen only make pennies per fish. That’s low pay by any standard, and many say stilt fishing is disappearing as the men find more lucrative work in other industries, like, say, tourism.

5. An Extreme Sport

Powerbocking is a sport that has popped up around spring-loaded stilts. Invented by German engineer Alexander Boeck in the 1990s, jumping stilts have fiberglass leaf springs that are attached to a curved aluminum frame that tapers to a footplate called the hoof. They let you jump 3 to 5 feet, take 9-foot kangaroo-like strides, and run 20 miles per hour. It’s like a trampoline is attached to your feet.

Jumping stilts were used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the U.S. Air Force is rumored to have tested them for military use. It's unclear whether bocking will catch on, but if so, we could be looking at a stilt renaissance in the future. Think of it as the Pogo Stick on steroids.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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.”

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