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How 5 Other Countries Approach Childbirth

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America is the land of the free, the home of the brave, and the domicile of broke parents. With or without insurance, the U.S. is the most expensive place to give birth in the world. At the same time, America has one of the highest rates of infant and maternal death among developed nations. Maybe it's time to consider how a few other countries approach childbirth.

1. The Netherlands

Except in high-risk cases, women in the Netherlands turn to midwives, not obstetricians, during their pregnancies. Couples have the option of a hospital birth, but most choose to stay home. In that case, the Kraampakket comes in handy. It sounds like something you might buy at IKEA, but it's actually a home delivery kit sent to every mother-to-be in Holland. (Watch this American expatriate open hers.) 

The Dutch healthcare system includes universal coverage with the option of additional private plans. Once a baby's born, insurance pays for at least a week of home care visits called kraamhulp. A nurse will visit the new mom each day to take care of everything, from caring for mom and baby to cooking and cleaning. 

2. France

Pamela Druckerman's 2012 book Bringing Up Bébé made thousands of moms want to relocate. Who could blame them? The American expatriate author observed that French parents are happier, more relaxed, and better-balanced overall than parents in the U.S. (However, Druckerman didn't say that pregnant French women won't get fat.) It could have something to do with a national healthcare system that covers approximately 70 percent of health costs and is supplemented with additional care plans. Housecalls are a big perk. Nurses at the Maternal and Infant Protection Service visit moms during and after pregnancy to teach childcare skills, provide care, and make sure parents aren't negligent. But if you want your laundry done, you're going to have to ask someone else.

3. Germany

Midwives call the shots in Deutschland. They're legally required at every birth. Doctors aren't. 

But here's something that'll really make you cry—with joy or outrage, depending on where you live. This infographic from the International Labour Organization illustrates paid parental (not just maternal) leave in other countries. You'll notice that German women get at least 98 days of fully-paid maternity leave. U.S. employers aren't required to provide any.

It's not uncommon for pregnancy to be treated as a career liability, even in countries that outlaw such discrimination.  Not so for German women. They legally can't be fired after announcing their pregnancy. (The same goes for women in the U.K.). Full-time workers can take up to three years of unpaid leave and will still have a job if and when they return to work. 

4. Japan

Most of the other countries you've read about so far emphasize midwifery, comprehensive maternity care, and natural birth over C-sections. Japanese women usually deliver in modern hospitals with doctors, but many still consider unmedicated birth a rite of passage. Fathers are allowed in the delivery room if they've taken prenatal classes. Otherwise, they stay in the waiting room. But the biggest difference is one you might have to hear—or not hear—to believe. Japanese women are discouraged from screaming in pain during childbirth. Instead, they keep calm and push on. 

Japanese women recover in the hospital for at least five days, even after a perfectly healthy delivery. Once released, the new mother begins a 21-day bed rest, usually at the mother's parents' house. Mom and baby bond during this time, and friends come to visit the new bundle of joy.

5. China

Women in China have an even stricter time-out period after birth. When new moms "sit the month," they spend 30 days bundled up in warm pajamas and slippers. They aren't allowed to bathe themselves, eat fruits and vegetables, or cuddle their babies too much. The goal is to restore their health with Chinese medicine and breastmilk-stimulating foods while also learning how to care for their infants. (Because of China's one-child policy, many men and women don't have experience with babies.) Traditionally, women "sit the month" at home. Now well-to-do families send new moms to luxury confinement centers, where they have 24-hour nurse supervision. Giving birth might be the easiest part of the process!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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