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Can Stress Be a Good Thing?

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It’s an accepted fact that stress is bad for you. But don’t drown in all the hype. In some cases, a little bit of stress can be good for your brain.

Stress May Not Make You Sick

A study of a whopping 29,000 people found that stress isn’t really taking years off your life. Rather, the belief that stress is bad is the problem. Stress, they discovered, doesn’t kill you—your viewpoint does. The study found that people who believed stress is bad had a 43 percent increased risk of death. People who did not believe stress was bad were far less likely to die. So stress may not be making you sick. How you deal with it is.

Stress Helps You Learn

A 2013 study found that a boost of corticosterone (a stress hormone) may help neural stem cells grow in the hippocampus, the brain’s learning center. The team discovered that stressful events could improve the mental performance of rats. From a survival standpoint, that makes sense. In the animal world, remembering a stressful event can help a critter avoid similar, life-threatening events in the future.

Stress Saves Your DNA and RNA

A little dose of stress tells your body to dial up antioxidants to fight free radicals, those pesky molecules that make us age. Ends up, with all that help, acute stress can help reduce damage to your body’s DNA and RNA. (Chronic stress, though, does the opposite. So don’t stress too much.)

Stress Boosts Your Immune System

Although chronic stress wreaks havoc on your immune system, an acute “fight or flight” stress attack can stimulate your immune system, making it more responsive. (Your body’s stress response, after all, is there to save you—not make you sick.) One study on rats found that moderate stress makes immune cells more aggressive.

Stress Can Be Alleviated With Charity

Of course, it’s still a good idea to avoid stress. But if you can’t, remedy it by donating to charity. A study of 850 people found that your risk of death increases 30 percent after a major stressful event, like the loss of a loved one. But there’s a treatment: People who helped others—especially by giving—practically eliminated that risk.

Learn more about the inner workings of that beautiful machine between your ears! Tune in to Brain Games Mondays at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]