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15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Auto Mechanics

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In the United States alone, roughly 750,000 auto mechanics spend long shifts diagnosing, repairing, and preventing motor vehicle problems. But thanks to some stereotypical portrayals in media and a complicated vocabulary of car parts, drivers can sometimes feel like their lack of understanding may prompt technicians to take advantage of them. That's not the case, mechanics say—the techs are here to help. To get a better idea of what their job really entails, mental_floss spoke with several mechanics at both independent repair shops and dealerships. Here’s a glimpse at what goes on after your car goes in.

1. THEY WISH YOU’D STOP WIPING BOOGERS ON YOUR SEAT.

A car can often resemble someone’s mobile living room, full of decorative accents, music, and occasionally dried snot. Charles, a mechanic who works at a Volkswagen dealership and runs The Humble Mechanic blog, says he’s seen his share of nose gold while working on vehicles. “People seem to like picking their nose and wiping it on the seat,” he says. To do a proper job, techs would prefer you bring in your vehicle without bodily fluids or trash inside. “Sometimes there’s a bunch of dirty clothes over the spare, or fast-food wrappers on the floor that we ask customers to remove. A lot of cars are clean, but people can be gross.”

2. THERE’S A SPECIAL BOOK THAT TELLS THEM WHAT TO CHARGE—EVEN IF IT’S TOO MUCH.

Ever walk away feeling like you’ve overpaid for a repair? It’s possible, but it’s not entirely the shop’s fault. Most every mechanic working on a flat rate (as opposed to a per-hour rate) references an industry trade manual that estimates how long a typical repair should take. If you’ve paid, say, $200 for a two-hour job that an experienced mechanic can get done in 30 minutes, you're still charged by the book—and you don’t get a refund.

The auto tool industry may share part of the blame. “The way it becomes unfair is when a mechanic buys a new specialty tool that may cost $300 but that pays for itself quickly,” says Ryan, a former mechanic in Colorado. “It means they can do the job in less time, but the customer still pays for full time.”

3. THEY CAN FIND MICE AND SQUIRRELS STUCK IN YOUR AXLES.

Depending on what part of the country you live in, a car's warm underbelly can be attractive to rodents and other animals. Charles has seen acorns socked away under hoods and once pried a squirrel from the front of a grill. “The biggest thing we see [in North Carolina] is chewed wires from mice,” he says. “They’ll make a nest in the air box. I’ve also had to clean deer guts off.” If you’re going to be storing your car for an extended period of time, Charles says some kind of rodent deterrent spray might help.

4. THEY MIGHT RUN SOME ERRANDS IN YOUR CAR.

While few mechanics actually take vehicles out for joy rides, the fact that they don’t get paid for the time it takes to test drive one means your spotless new Honda might develop a surprise ketchup stain on the driver’s seat. “Basically, every vehicle needs to be driven to make sure the problem is resolved,” Ryan says. “If you’re headed out to lunch and you need to confirm that, it makes sense to drive it down the road.”

5. THEY MIGHT RESCUE YOU IN A ROADSIDE EMERGENCY.

While their individual morality mileage varies, many mechanics feel duty-bound to pull over when they spot a stranded driver. “I do a lot of highway driving in the winter and the rule of thumb is if you see someone stranded on the highway, you stop and check on them,” says Ryan M., a mechanic in Winnipeg. “I've also pulled lots of vehicles out of ditches and off curbs.”

6. DEALERSHIPS HAVE ACCESS TO RESOURCES THAT PRIVATELY-OWNED SHOPS DON’T.

If you’ve ever wondered whether you should take your out-of-warranty vehicle in for a repair at a cheaper, locally owned shop over the dealer-branded shingle, here’s something to keep in mind: Many of those smaller outfits can’t afford the kind of information provided by car manufacturers to help successfully diagnose and treat a problem. “We’re able to go deep into the Volkswagen brand,” Charles says. “There are a lot of resources we have access to that an independent place wouldn’t. We can get access to the car’s engineers if we need that. The brand is an ally. A small shop isn’t going to spend $15,000 a year [for that data] to specialize in one kind of car. Once it’s outside their scope of knowledge, it makes more sense to go to a dealer.”

7. YOU’RE TECHNICALLY NOT ALLOWED IN THE GARAGE. EVER.

You’ve probably heard advice about making a mechanic show you a defective part to guarantee they’re not simply making up work to do. That involves a trip beyond the forbidden door marked “Do Not Enter.” But according to Ryan, you’re not actually supposed to be back there for any reason. “Insurance companies don’t want customers in the garage, ever,” he says. “It’s not that dangerous, but it’s not supposed to happen.”

8. THEY SOMETIMES MAKE THEIR OWN TOOLS.

While mechanics start out by buying their own tools—some even investing tens of thousands in supplies—there will always be instances where they’ll need to improvise. “A tool might be missing, or not put back in the right place,” Charles says. “Or a company just might not make what you need. I have a whole drawer full of cut-up sockets and wrenches. Making a custom tool is fun.”

9. THEY USE A COOKIE SHEET TO STAY ORGANIZED.

While cell phones have become handy to help keep track of how a part needs to be re-assembled, some mechanics still like to stay organized by laying out pieces in a specific order. “If I'm working on a vehicle I've never seen before, and it's a complicated job or a job spread out over multiple days like a transmission rebuild or something like that, I'll take a cookie sheet and magnets and lay things out spatially to stay organized,” Ryan M. says. “You can also mark parts with a Sharpie.”

10. THEY DON’T ALWAYS PERFORM EVERY LITTLE TASK.

Cars brought in for maintenance are supposed to undergo a litany of small adjustments, but that laundry list can sometimes get skipped over depending on how pressed for time your technician is. “Stuff like lubricating door hinges or latching mechanisms gets missed all the time,” Ryan says. “It doesn’t affect performance at that moment, but it can over time.”

11. THEY’RE IMPRESSED BY DRIVER MACGYVERS.

Not everyone can rush to a repair shop when a problem crops up, necessitating some improvisational skills. “I once had someone rig up a dipstick stop with a beer bottle cap,” Charles says. “Someone else used a chewing tobacco lid for a coolant cap. And we had someone else keep the driver’s door shut by rolling both windows down and securing it with a belt.” Less impressive: tin foil in place of a gas cap.

12. IT’S OK TO MAKE SILLY NOISES FOR THEM.

Cars make all kinds of odd sounds, which means drivers are often left to try and replicate them. Mechanics prefer this over you trying to explain the noise verbally, no matter how silly it makes you feel. “I'd rather hear a funny noise come out of you than waste time trying to figure out what you mean by ‘buzzing, but it's like squishy if that makes sense,’" Ryan M. says. “Make the damn noise!”

13. SEARING HOT OIL BURNS ARE NO FUN.

A garage is a seriously hazardous hub of activity, with mechanics working alongside one another tending to multi-ton vehicles raised above their heads. While major injuries are uncommon, dealing with chemicals is a common source of pain. “Hot coolant and hot oil are the two main things I’ve seen people get hurt the most with,” Charles says. “That’s a weekly occurrence.” Other pitfalls: dropping heavy wrenches on your toes, or having someone fail to [use] the brakes before backing out, running down a co-worker. “A guy broke his arm that way.”

14. THEY MIGHT WATCH YOUR KIDS GROW UP.

The best mechanics, Charles says, play the long game. By being attentive and engaged with customers, they’ll often see their clients' offspring returning with cars of their own. “A kid could come in at 10 and all of a sudden he’s 16 with his first car,” he says. “Then he’s in college and his mom wants a new car. I’ve had families of people with four or five Volkswagens and I’m working on all of them." That personal touch also extends to tokens of appreciation. "Sometimes I even get cookies.”

15. THEY LIKE TO GO HOME AND WORK ON CARS SOME MORE.

Surprisingly, a number of mechanics don’t get their fill of greasy hands and wrench lacerations during the day. According to Charles, having a personal vehicle to tinker with is an entirely different experience than working on a customer’s ride. “Wrenching on cars all day at work is similar to working on an assembly line,” he says. “Car comes in, gets fixed, goes out. Car comes in. At home, it’s 180 degrees from that and relaxing. We all like to tinker.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

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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
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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