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The Man Who Has Been Counting His Sneezes for 8.5 Years

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We live in a time of lists—and are unabashedly, unashamedly addicted to them. At the end of the year, we make lists of the best (and worst) movies, books, and food we had the previous 365 days; we might even make hopeful lists of our resolutions for the coming year. We make to-do lists, grocery lists, lists of pros and cons, lists of things to pack into a carry-on. There are list apps and lists of lists of lists.

But Peter Fletcher is perhaps the most unique listmaker in the world. He is the force behind Sneezecount, which chronicles—yes, you guessed it—his sneezes.

Fletcher hasn’t always been a listmaker, at least not “beyond the administrative-procrastinatory,” he says. But on July 12, 2007—an otherwise unremarkable day—Fletcher began to wonder how many times people sneezed in 24 hours. Then he wondered how many times people sneezed in a year. And what about a whole life?

“The idea of keeping a detailed count then occurred to me, and struck me as innately ridiculous, and the ridiculousness appealed to me,” Fletcher tells mental_floss via email.

Peter Fletcher, presumably in the room where he sneezes most. Photo credit: Peter Fletcher.

But why sneezes? After all, people cough, fart, pick their nose—in other words, there are a variety of other bodily functions that Fletcher could have chronicled instead of the everyday spray. “Sneezes work perfectly because they are discrete events,” he says. “They are countable in a way that so many body functions or everyday events are not, and broadly speaking, they cannot be manipulated or faked.”

And so, the lowly sneeze became Fletcher’s chief daily interest. He noticed a curious, perhaps obvious fact: that sneezing occurs only when one is awake (or at least, Fletcher was only aware of sneezing when he was awake). He also noticed that his sneezes occurred more in the morning, tapering off by afternoon. But Fletcher hasn’t been able to track any other meaningful conclusions about the frequency of his sneezing.

Fletcher’s early attempts to record his sneezes were far less detailed than his current records. “I started off keeping a note on post-its if I was at my desk (I usually was) or writing it on my hand or any scrap of paper,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to realize I needed to be more disciplined and systematic, and so kept a notebook with me at all times, writing down the details, starting from the back of the book.”

He moved on to blogging, reporting the sneeze number, the location, “strength” of the sneeze, and “comments” describing his state of mind, environment, and observations about the sneeze. But this past October, Fletcher stopped his online blog; it had become too cumbersome, and Fletcher resorted back to a private journal.

Fletcher’s blog describes his growing awareness about the mundane act of sneezing. He’s noticed where he sneezes most—in his office/spare bedroom. Because he wants to record every sneeze, he often “deters” sneezes if they occur when he’s not able to record them or it’s the middle of the night. Fletcher’s accuracy in this realm extends to even the source of the sneeze: a pepper-induced one, for example, is considered a cheat and not quite an honest sneeze. And he’s oddly self-competitive with his sneeze count, congratulating himself at the end of a particularly sneezy day.

His recording devices have evolved, moving from Post-It notes to various Moleskins to emails while out and about and unable to reach his journal. Today, he’s let the journal habit go (he’s filled three notebooks worth), instead emailing himself when he sneezes. “It’s the one ritual that I’ve neglected and I regret that I stopped,” he tells mental_floss. “The notebooks and the writing down were an important part of the process in their own right.”

Fletcher is definitely on to something there. Journaling and recording thoughts has sometimes been viewed as a gratifying experience, a mindfulness exercise, and a way to cultivate appreciation for the little things. For some, jotting down the details of the day is a habit; for others, it’s a path toward happiness.

The thought of perhaps stopping his sneezing record has crossed Fletcher’s mind, and he’s entertained it. “There have been times when I’ve thought I might stop at a certain milestone, so x thousand sneezes, or five years or 1000 days, but each milestone comes and goes and I’m still doing it,” he says. Fletcher said that if he ever did stop tracking his sneezes, it would probably be when he died. “I might stop voluntarily one day though,” he says, with a never-say-never mentality. But it’s unlikely he’ll cease.

He’s blunt: The project is a solo, personal exercise, one that he finds rewarding for himself, though people have expressed their opinions, which Fletcher describes as “moderate to strong, occasionally warm.” He’s achieved some minor celebrity with the project—he’s been a featured speaker at the Boring Conference, spoken at Ignite London, and been the subject of a BBC mini documentary.

“When I finally sent out some messages to say that I was doing it, a self-assured acquaintance advised me to ‘Get yourself some kids’—I assume for the purpose of more fruitfully occupying my spare time," he says. "Of course, since then, that is exactly what I have done, and it was sound advice.”

Perhaps most surprisingly to the average outsider, Fletcher shrugs off how the project has affected him. In fact, he doesn’t recommend anyone follow his footsteps in keeping a record of their sneezes, “as it can be a bit of a burden.” He emphasizes he started the project as a joke but that, eight and a half years in, it’s become a habit and that he really doesn’t remember a time without recording his sneezes. As he says, “I’m interested in sneezes, but not overly interested in them.”

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
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