CLOSE
Original image

9 Dedicated Dogs with Amazing Jobs

Original image

Dogs live to please us, and some are bred to love work. Give them a job helping people, and the rewards go both ways. Here are nine dogs who do amazing work every day.

1. GANDER

Veteran Lon Hodge suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his military service and was declared 100% disabled. Hodge was paired with a Labradoodle service dog trained through Freedom Service Dogs of America, an organization that rescues dogs from shelters and custom-trains them for veterans with differing needs. Gander was slated to be euthanized when he was taken for training. Now he is Hodge's constant companion, trained to intervene when his voice changes or when there's too much noise.

Gander can also open doors, pick up objects, help Hodge rise from the floor, and about a hundred other tasks. Hodge was so inspired that he and Gander now travel the country, advocating for service dog programs that help other veterans. Gander won the 2016 American Humane Hero Dog Awards for top service dog. He also has his own Facebook page.

2. AND 3. DENVER AND ANNA

Denver and Anna are full-time hospital dogs. They go to work every day at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, where they interact with the young patients. The two golden retrievers (Denver also has some Labrador in him) provide a bit of normalcy for children going through scary procedures who may be a long way from their homes and their own pets. Denver and Anna were specially trained to behave themselves, show affection, and calm and soothe anxious patients. Both Denver and Anna came from Canine Assistants, an organization in Milton, Georgia that trains dogs to help people with disabilities or special needs.

4. AXLE

Milk-Bone

Axle is a therapy dog that belongs to Tom Meli, but he is open to helping a number of people with his calm, comforting demeanor. Axle and Tom visit schools, hospitals, and senior centers to share the love. Axle provides stress relief for people with epilepsy and sits with children while they learn to read. He's become quite an ambassador for therapy dogs! Axle was also trained by Canine Assistants.

5. EGGROLL

Milk-Bone

Eggroll is Elizabeth's service dog. He helps her control her epilepsy by providing a calming influence, opening the refrigerator door, fetching medication when needed, and has even learned to dial 911 when he sees an emergency. Eggroll's help means that Elizabeth can safely live on her own.

6. PIPER

Milk-Bone

Piper combines fierce loyalty to her human with willingness to help whole classes of children. Kaitlin Miller has epilepsy, which Piper is very aware of. She can fetch medication when Miller needs it, and calms her through seizures. Miller conducts horse riding lessons for children with special needs at her riding stable, and Piper has become an integral part of the class, by showing gentleness, stress relief, and infinite patience for the students. Piper, Eggroll, and Axle have all been named to Milk-Bone's third-annual list of “Dogs Who Changed the World.”

7. FARLEY

Farley is still a puppy, but she recently got her first full-time job at East Tennessee Children's Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee. At seven months old, Farley is undergoing a six-week training course, after which she will be the hospital's first full-time facility support dog.

The children's hospital has used part-time volunteer therapy dogs for their young patients before. One patient, 16-year-old Kristyn Farley, loved the therapy dogs so much that she suggested the hospital take one on full-time. Kristyn did not survive her cancer, and the new puppy Farley is named in her honor. Farley was purchased through a grant from PetSmart Charities.

8. ANGUS

Angus the springer spaniel has a hospital job, but he's not a therapy dog. Instead, Angus is an inspector, trained to sniff out the highly contagious bacteria Clostridium difficile, commonly called C. diff, the scourge of modern hospitals. Dog trainer Teresa Zurberg almost died from a C. diff infection a few years ago. Her husband, who is a nurse at Vancouver General Hospital, suggested she train a dog to detect the bacteria. Zurberg did so, using the same methods she already used to train dogs to sniff out drugs and explosives.

Angus began learning as a puppy, and was deployed last summer to work at Vancouver General. He identifies areas where C. diff is growing so that the hospital can do a targeted cleaning and ultraviolet disinfection. Angus is doing so well in his job that Zurberg is kept busy training dogs for other hospitals. In fact, he's been so impressive, the Vancouver hospital is adding a second C. diff-detecting dog. You can keep up with Angus through his Facebook page.

9. JUDGE

Chief Lee Laubach of the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Fire Department took on a trained arson investigation dog in 2011. Judge is a Labrador retriever who can recognize the scents of many different accelerants commonly used in arson cases. He's investigated hundreds of suspicious fires, leading to quite a few arrests and a substantial drop in arson cases in Allentown. Judge is also a public relations dog, accompanying Chief Laubach to schools to teach children about fire safety. Judge won the arson dog category in last year's American Humane Hero Dog Awards. Judge has his own Facebook page.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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