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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

11 Jobs Your Guidance Counselor Didn't Tell You About

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Remember when your high school guidance counselor told you that if you didn’t buckle down and study, you’d end up flipping burgers for a living? Now you’re settled into a rewarding career in accounting, but there were other options Mr. Hasselback never thought of. You could have been a band salvager, a kelp cutter, or even an unscrambler. The U.S. Department of Labor worked out a nifty classification scheme that defines these jobs and more.


Want to ski all season, but you don’t quite have the skills to be a ski instructor? Well, if you like riding snowmobiles and are good at attaching hoses and adjusting valves, hook up the compressed air and water, adjust the mixture, and start spraying. You’re a snowmaker! 


Like building models? Forget the small stuff. Why not a life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex? The duties of a museum technician include molding and restoring skeletal parts of fossils, reassembling fragmented artifacts, and fabricating substitute pieces. You might have to clean, catalog, and label some small stuff, too.

If you work at an art museum, you may be called upon to re-create art installations. For example, in 1981, artist Chris Burden modeled his fantasy of a 25th-century battle with 5000 war toys on a 1100 square foot sand base surrounded by a jungle of houseplants. In 2007, preparators at California’s Orange County Museum of Art recreated the installation, using Burden’s detailed plans and cataloged pieces.


Ah! There’s nothing like a fresh ocean breeze and the scent of new-mown kelp. The lawn-care business can be quite competitive, but how many people know how to operate underwater mowers? A kelp cutter lowers a mower into water from a kelp-harvesting boat, starts it up and keeps the load evenly distributed as kelp accumulates in the boat. 


Does your left eye twitch whenever you draw a straight flush? You’ll never clean up at the poker table, but you can still make a living at a casino. Somebody’s got to take the bets, operate the machine that blows air into the glass bubble and gets the numbered balls mixing, then press a lever to release 20 balls, and call out the numbers. A keno writer also scans winning tickets, calculates the amount of winnings, and pays off the winners.


This has nothing to do with the cut-glass prisms and pendants that dangle from crystal chandeliers. (If you’re going to get technical about it, that glass is the opposite of a crystal.) A crystal slicer slices wafers from semiconductor crystal ingots, such as silicon or gallium arsenide, and with x-rays and calipers, measures the crystal orientation and thickness of the sample wafer and inspects it for flaws. Don’t dis the slicer; without these slim wafers to “semiconduct” current, you wouldn’t be reading this article on your computer, tablet, or phone. Even the Donald Trumps of the world would say electronics are more important than shiny baubles dangling from your light fixtures.


A buffer may be buffer than you, but it’s not from spending all day at the gym. This job involves (1) holding and pressing shoe parts against an abrasive cylinder that polishes and sands the part or against a wire roughing wheel to clean and prepare the part for cementing, and (2) feeding the sole between a rubber presser roller and an abrasive-covered roller that roughens the part for cementing. You can specialize according to the shoe part being buffed, roughened, or sanded—for example, Box-Toe Buffer—or according to type of material brushed or sanded, such as Crepe-Sole Scourer.


You’ve got to be nimbler than Lucy and Ethel were when they tried to wrap chocolates that came zipping down the conveyer belt. A machine is supposed to automatically unscramble cans or jars of cooked food products from retort baskets into a straight line to facilitate further processing. A human unscrambler lowers a retort basket to the top of a hydraulic lift, clamps it on, adjusts the conveyor sides to permit passage of cans or jars, and pushes a button to activate the conveyor. He or she observes the flow on the conveyor and removes warped or bent cans and repositions cans causing bottlenecks—quick—before they start piling up and tumbling to the floor—aaaak!


Want to control the heavens and the earth—and put on cool light shows with wall-thumping music? A planetarium technician is in charge of the sound and projection equipment used in planetarium shows. He or she creates special effects, selects music, and synchronizes it with recorded commentary and the visual presentation. Far out, man!


No, a band salvager does not scour dive bars and rehab centers in the hopes of retreading once-great punk rock bands. This is much more basic, and some might say more useful, recycling. The job involves salvaging tie bands from uncompressed cotton bales for reuse on compressed cotton bales by straightening the bands with a rubber mallet or power rollers and cutting them to the required length for tying compressed bales.


In this job you cut hands of bananas from stalks for packing in preparation for shipment. Don’t holler for Mr. Tally Man. The operation’s been downsized and you have to count your own bananas. Then you test them for ripeness to determine in which room they will be stored.


Do you dream of running away to join the circus? Good news—you can, even if you can’t execute a flawless Triple Twisting Double off the flying trapeze. A circus laborer moves wild animal cages, loads and unloads animals and equipment on and off the train, and helps to erect and dismantle tents—large tents. The busy bureaucrats at the Department of Labor also specify that the job description includes cleaning the floor after the elephants perform. Maybe accounting isn’t so bad after all. 

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.