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5 Reasons Pets are Great for the Workplace

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By Carmel Lobello

The idea that pets are good for workplace productivity is counterintuitive: Pets are noisy and rambunctious, and they need to be fed, walked, and cuddled throughout the day. If anything, they sound like they would distract from work.

Yet a growing number of companies, from Ben & Jerry's to Google, are allowing employees to bring their pets to work. Some, like Village Green, a Detroit-based property management company, actually pay workers to bring their pets to work.

Here, five ways pets can improve the workplace:

1. They lower stress levels

Many work environments are inherently stressful: There are deadlines and quotas to meet, bosses and coworkers to please, and often very little sunlight and opportunity to get out from behind the computer screen. All these factors can elevate stress and lower workplace satisfaction, taking a bite out of worker productivity.

The antidote to all that stress? Research shows that four-legged furry friends can be of great help.

Recent studies in hospitals and nursing homes have shown the powerful effect animals can have on human health. Interspecies interaction can contribute to lower blood pressure, relief from depression and anxiety, and even faster recovery after surgeries. Similar benefits have been proven in the office setting, too.

In 2012, a Virginia Commonwealth University study took a look at a 550-person manufacturing-retail office in Greensboro, N.C., where about 20 to 30 dogs came to work each day, says Science Daily. Using surveys and saliva samples to evaluate stress levels, researchers found that self-reported stress declined throughout the day for employees who brought their pets to the office.

Meanwhile, those who left their dogs at home experienced an increase of self-reported stress throughout the day. By the end of the day, the group had "significantly higher stress" than the group with dogs.

2. They help break the ice

Like a cute baby or an offensive T-shirt, pets have a way of instigating conversation among humans. This can be clutch in the modern workplace, where many employees interact only through screens, and offices can be quiet, except for the noisy typers.

Pets pull people away from their screens long enough to answer questions about, well, their pets—the breed, the story behind the name, etc. These face-to-face conversations can help team members bond and boost morale.

A 2010 study out of the University of Central Michigan showed how pets can foster bonding in the workplace:

The CMU study involved several experiments; one involving groups of four individuals, some with or without dogs. Each group member was charged with a fake crime, and surveyed to see if they would report their fellow group members. Groups with dogs present made employees 30 percent less likely to report each other, showing that canine co-workers make for a more cohesive and trustworthy workplace environment. [The Humane Society]

3. They force breaks

Most jobs don't require workers to take breaks, and in a competitive, fast-paced environment, that can mean full days where workers don't leave their desks for more than the occasional trip to the water cooler.

Having a dog in the office requires the owner to occasionally peel herself away from her computer and take the dog for a walk, essentially forcing a break.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, these breaks can boost productivity. Studies show that sustained mental effort over multiple hours, like the kind required for data entry jobs, for example, can cause mental fatigue and stress, resulting in more mistakes and lower productivity. Occasionally breaking away, however, can boost focus and creativity, and lower mistakes.

It also helps that the dog owners are taking the breaks outside and moving around—also good for mental clarity.

4. They remove pests for free

At Civitas, an urban design, planning, and landscape architecture firm in Denver, a gray and white cat named Gonzo performs a vital task: Mice removal.

"The mice came back when the cat before him died, but disappeared again when Gonzo showed up," says Amirah Shahid, a landscape architect at the firm. "He recently left a dead mouse carcass as a present at someone's desk."

Beyond the free gifts, the cat means not having to hire an exterminator to spray chemicals around the office.

5. The decor

Another benefit: Some cats and dogs can make the space more attractive. "[Gonzo's] very handsome to look at," says Shahid. "And he makes us take much needed breaks to acknowledge his presence when he's making his rounds around the studio."

"Clients, consultants, and other office visitors think we're super cool because we have him roaming around."

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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