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9 Dedicated Dogs with Amazing Jobs

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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