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11 Kind, Free Things You Can Do for Yourself

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It doesn't take deep pockets to treat yourself. Indulge in one of the following simple pleasures for an immediate mood boost.

1. SHAKE UP YOUR ROUTINE.

Even little changes can be very refreshing. Try taking a different route to work, meeting a friend at a new coffee shop, or listening to music you’ve never heard before. Cook something unusual for dinner. Give your senses something fun and unexpected to explore. 

2. START A "WARM FUZZIES" FILE.

The next time somebody says something encouraging or flattering about you, write it down. Did they say it in an email? Label the email “warm fuzzies” or something similar. Over time, you’ll amass a precious collection of personalized little boosts that you can pull up when you’re feeling down. 

3. TAKE A GOOD, LONG LOOK AT THE STARS.

There’s nothing like the night sky for a good dose of perspective. On a very clear night, you might be able to see hundreds or thousands of stars, each of them light years away. What you can’t see are the rest of the 400 billion stars in our galaxy, or the septillion (that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars in the universe. We are, as they say, a speck on a speck on a speck. (Tip: If you can’t see the cosmos from your house, a stroll through NASA’s Hubble Telescope image gallery ought to do it.)

4. ASSESS YOUR INTERNET DIET.

Your time and attention are limited resources. How are you spending them? Take a look at your social media accounts and the websites and apps you use. How do they make you feel? Are you following people or taking in content that brings you down? If so, are you getting anything out of it? If your feeds are full of pointless negativity, it may be time for a purge.

5. GET YOUR GIGGLE ON.

What makes you laugh the hardest? Maybe it’s your favorite cartoon or a comedy special. Maybe it’s your sister, or your next-door neighbor's dog, or cooking shows hosted by a foul-mouthed toddler. Whatever it is, seek it out. It only takes a few minutes of laughter to get the dopamine and endorphins flowing. 

6. GO FOR A STROLL.

The simple act of getting outside can do wonders for your outlook. Even a short jaunt offers a host of benefits: fresh air, a change of environment, an opportunity to move your body, exposure to nature (even if that’s just grass and fenced-in trees, it counts!), and the opportunity to see and interact with other people and animals.  

7. ZOOM IN ON THE GOOD THINGS.

Everybody’s got their something. Maybe you collect sneakers, or are a wizard with nail art. Maybe it’s cute algae, or crafting, or museums, or basketball. Start taking pictures of your favorite things at least once a day. You could share the photos on social media or keep them to yourself; the point is to take a closer look at the things that make you happy.

8. SNUGGLE SOMEBODY.

Cuddles are like some kind of wonder drug. Cozying up to someone you love (or a stuffed animal, or even a well-compensated stranger) can lower your blood pressure, reduce your stress levels, flood your body with happy-making hormones, and even boost your immune system. Having a bad day? There is no shame in asking someone you trust for a solid hug.

9. TAKE A 3-MINUTE BREAK.

By now you’ve almost definitely heard about the myriad benefits of mindfulness meditation. But you probably haven’t heard that even tiny doses can help refresh your system. Not sure where to start? Try apps and websites like Calm.com, which guide users through tiny meditation breaks and offer soothing sounds and images like thunderstorms and waves on the beach.

10. GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY.

Most of us spend many of our waking hours sitting at the computer, using our hands only for typing and clicking and our eyes for reading and watching. When’s the last time you baked a cake, or assembled a piece of furniture, or patched a bike tire? It doesn’t have to be complicated or hard. If you’re out of ideas or energy, just picking up a coloring book and pencils or petting a dog can send some good feelings from your fingers to your brain. 

11. CREATE A BAD-DAY BOX.

Sometimes when you’re feeling down it can be hard to figure out what would make you feel better. You can skip that step entirely by starting a bad-day box today. This is just a box (or tin or bucket) in which you put little things that bring you comfort or joy. That could be stickers or nail polish or miniature chocolate bars; it could be a mix CD you made for yourself, a friend’s phone number, or some really silly jokes. It could be a book of poetry or a slapstick comedy on DVD. Whatever does it for you, throw it in the box, and when the bad day comes, you’ll be ready.

All images courtesy of iStock.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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