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11 of the Professor's Best Inventions on Gilligan's Island

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Russell Johnson, the actor who portrayed Professor Roy Hinkley on Gilligan's Island, passed away Thursday at the age of 89. In honor of the man who will forever live on as the person we'd most like to get trapped on a desert island with, here are some of the Professor's most fantastic inventions.

1. A lie detector

In season three's "Lovey's Secret Admirer," Mrs. Howell receives anonymous love notes. Mr. Howell won't stand for it, of course, and has the Professor grill all of the men on the island to determine who's trying to put the moves on his wife.

Using bamboo, the good Professor rigs up a device using the ship's horn and the radio's batteries to show when a lie is being told.

2. and 3. A roulette wheel and a pool table 

In the season one episode "Three Million Dollars More or Less," Mr. Howell loses millions to Gilligan in a mini golf game. He tries to win it back by "games of chance," the Professor-crafted roulette wheel and pool table. The roulette wheel was made from the Minnow's steering wheel—I mean, it's not like they needed it—and the pool table appears to be mostly bamboo and netting.

4. A hot air balloon 

In "Gilligan Meets Jungle Boy," featuring a young Kurt Russell as lil' Tarzan, the gang fashions a hot air balloon out of raincoats sealed together with tree sap. Spoiler alert: Jungle Boy makes it off of the island. No one else does. 

5. A washing machine 

Just because they're trapped on an island doesn't mean they're heathens. The castaways wash their clothes using a machine the Professor rigged up to be bicycle-powered. The washing machine appears in a few episodes—this one is "Gilligan's Living Doll" from season two.

6. A potion to cure Gilligan's double vision 

When Gilligan develops vision problems, the Professor makes a potion out of Captibora berries. It takes a little trial and error, but he eventually gets there.

7. Shark repellent

In "Two on a Raft," the very first episode, the Professor concocts a potion for the Skipper and Gilligan to use when they try to go for help. Hopefully the mysterious island materials the repellent was made from were edible.

8. A Geiger counter

When a meteor crashes on the island in "Meet the Meteor," the Professor makes a "simple form of Geiger counter" to test its radioactivity. Easy-peasy.

9. A battery charger.

In "X Marks the Spot" from the first season, the Prof fashions a battery charger out of coconut shells and seawater. In fact, he details the whole process, just in case you want to give it a go. Let us know how it works out for you.

"We need coconut shells, seawater, metal strips, pennies.The pennies are held in the seawater by the hairpins. The wire coming from the pennies leads to the positive pole of the battery. Metal strips on the other side of the coconut, lead to the negative pole of the battery. Now, everybody get ready to stir their coconuts, when I get the battery hooked up."

And that is how the castaways get the radio running just in time to learn that there's a nuclear warhead coming their way.

10. Nitroglycerine.

When a volcano threatens to erupt and destroy the island in "Operation: Steam Heat," the Professor theorizes that blowing it up will solve all of their problems. What, you mean you can't make nitroglycerine with random items found around your house? Well, I'm just embarrassed for you. All it takes is sulfuric acid from the crystallized copper found in caves, glycerol from papaya seeds, and potassium nitrate from the rocks at the lagoon. Get on it.

11. Jet pack fuel.

A jet pack washes up on the island. With a little gas, the gang can use it to fly out and get rescued! Good thing the Professor figures out how to make jet pack fuel.

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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.”