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Space Madness: The Psychosis That Never Happened

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From Star Trek to Ren and Stimpy to Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Pioneers Over C,” pop culture and fiction are filled with men, women, and animals who have gone excitedly beyond the bounds of the Earth ... only to lose their grips on reality and mentally break from the stress of space travel. The phenomenon is colloquially known as Space Madness—and while we laugh it off as a TV trope today, in the late 50s, when manned space travel was just a few years away, the disorder was a valid fear.

Around the same time that American moviegoers were watching General Merritt lose his mind and sabotage his craft in Conquest of Space, psychiatrists feared the same fate for real-life space travelers. In a special report on “space psychiatry,” the American Journal of Psychiatry noted that one might expect strong indications of psychopathology from men who signed up to be fired into the cosmos. "Volunteers for dangerous missions," it said, "occasionally have rather bizarre motivations." The report recommended interviews and psychologic testing to weed out those with “gross judgmental defects or other major defects in ego integration,” but concluded that “man’s psychological plasticity is a matter of record, and if workable and habitable space ships are constructed … effective pilots can be found to use them.”

Still, the idea weighed heavy on minds at NASA. In an examination of the history of space madness published earlier this year, science historian Matthew H. Hersch writes that government psychiatrists feared that the volunteers for the first manned space missions would be “impulsive, suicidal, sexually aberrant thrill-seekers.” Even if guys like these didn’t make it through screening, the psychiatrists were still worried that seemingly normal, sound minds would break when dealing with weightlessness, radiation, isolation, fear, and even the deprivation of cigarettes and Coca-Cola in space, and doom their missions.

Down to Earth

When the United States Air Force began trying to identify pilots with both the technical skills and the physical and mental fortitude for space travel, however, the psychiatrists who did the screening actually found little cause for alarm.

Instead, the volunteers exhibited many qualities associated with the stereotypical NASA nerd. Most were were engineers that, while drawn to the allure and danger of flying, were studious, professional, responsible, and comfortable working with dangerous machines. They were stable men with “excellent interpersonal skills and slight obsessive-compulsive tendencies.”

“Tests revealed the would-be spacemen to be sane, poised professionals able to absorb extraordinary stresses,” Hersch writes, and the screeners found the whole group to be free of “psychosis, clinically significant neurosis or personality disorder.” While a few pilots didn’t meet the intellectual aptitude requirements, none of the initial volunteers were cut from selection on psychological grounds.

In training and in orbit, the astronauts displayed the same cool they had during testing. After Neil Armstrong had to eject from a jet-powered lunar landing simulator less than a second before it crashed to the ground, Hersch recounts, he was back at his desk an hour later, quietly working, with “a lack of affect that one colleague regarded as odd, even for an astronaut." Psychiatrists assigned to returning astronauts to look for evidence they were “spaced out or raptured to death” found no signs of any problems. “If anything," says Hersch, “spaceflight had flattened the men's personalities rather than encouraging bouts of emotion or grandiose thoughts.”

There are some notable exceptions, of course. After his space-faring career, Buzz Aldrin struggled with alcoholism and depression as part of what he called a “good, old-fashioned, American nervous breakdown.” Other astronauts dealt with substance abuse too, or marital discord, but “these reactions were not uniform,” Hersch says, and didn’t “amount to a discrete syndrome or disease.”

With Space Madness never manifesting in real life, a new archetype was born: the astronaut as an unshakeable space-age cowboy.

You can read Hersch’s article here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]