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11 Messy Jobs for the Bravest Among Us

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The grind of a 9-to-5 got you down? You could be doing this today.

1. Armpit Sniffer

A superhuman sniffer can be your ticket to a new career. Odor testing is a big deal to many manufacturers, and a foray into the professional world of smelling can earn you $39,000 a year. Professional smellers may whiff new perfume, wine, or air fresheners. On the downside, if they work for a deodorant company, they may also smell armpits for a living.

2. Porta Potty Cleaner

What goes in must come out. Armed with a tank, vacuum wand, and a nose clip, professional porta john cleaners suck up whatever’s lurking in the blue murk below the toilet lid. They also clean the walls and restock the mobile tinkle station with supplies. The plus? A potential salary of $50,000.

3. Pet Food Taster

You don’t need to love dogs for this gig. You do, however, need to love dog food. A number of companies hire humans to taste-test pet food for quality control. You need to have a nuanced tongue—balancing what animals like to taste and what owners like to smell. If you can stomach it, you can bring home about $40,000 a year.

4. HAZMAT Diver

If the thought of diving in raw sewage doesn’t make you gag, then commercial diving may be for you. HAZMAT divers may swim in sewage, contaminated ponds, vats of oil sludge, and paper pulp tanks to repair pipes, find lost objects, or recover bodies. With good knowledge of chemistry and biology, an experienced diver can make up to $150,000 a year.

5. Crime Scene Cleaner

Police may clean the street of crime, but they don’t ever clean the crime scene. It’s the crime scene cleaner’s job to sweep up any unfortunate gore. Not for the easily queasy, crime scene cleaners also break down meth labs and clean up anthrax scares. If you can handle constantly being around tragedy, you can haul in $600 an hour.

6. Poison Taster

Like the medieval monarchs before them, some VIPs still have professional guinea pigs to taste their food. Everything Vladimir Putin eats is tested by a taster. Even U.S. Presidents—from Reagan to Obama—have tasters. American tasters, though, oversee the whole food-making process whenever the President goes out. Most of them are Secret Service agents.

7. Roadkill Collector

Over 1.5 million deer are smacked by cars each year. Plenty of other animals scurry across the asphalt and never make it too—and it’s a roadkill collector’s job to pick them up. Collectors scan the roads for carcasses, play Frogger with traffic, and dispose of the kill at landfills or compost heaps (depending on state laws). According to a listing from 2000, roadkill collectors make around $25,000 a year

8. Frog Pickler

Those frogs you dissected in high school biology? That’s a job. Biological suppliers preserve frogs, cats, pigeons, and pigs for high school and college students. Most of the specimens are euthanized on the spot, embalmed, and then injected with colored latex so students can locate the arteries and veins.    

9. Fake Astronaut

Beginning in 2010, six people in Moscow locked themselves in a mock spacecraft for 490 days. The goal? To see if it was possible to travel in deep space—specifically Mars—without going insane. They spent 250 days enclosed in the craft, 30 days exploring a model of the Martian landscape, and 240 more days back in the spacecraft. That’s 520 days of solitude. Although they didn’t go crazy, the participants did become more reclusive.

10. Deer Urine Farmer

Deer urine is packed with pheromones that drive big bucks wild, making it a favorite lure among hunters. Some deer farmers collect and sell undiluted whitetail pee, and with 17 million deer hunters in the U.S., they make a pretty penny doing it. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, a single deer can whizz $93,000 to $303,000 worth of urine each year.

11. Professional Patient

For $15 an hour, you can get your prostate examined multiple times by a team of inexperienced doctors. Many med schools hire fake patients to help future physicians hone their bedside manner. In one sitting, your may receive 17 physicals, or, for a higher bill, you may get something a bit more invasive. Although you’re one of their first patients, you’re helping teach the next generation of doctors.

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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.”