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11 Creative Breakthroughs People Had in Their Sleep

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You know what visions I get in my dreams? Visions of falling off of buildings (and doing the full body spasm thing when I hit the ground). These 11 people, on the other hand, had dreams that changed the world.

1. The Terminator

Does an emotionless cyborg killing machine that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger seem like a nightmare to you? It was a nightmare for James Cameron. He was fighting a 102-degree fever when a vision of a robot dragging itself along the floor with a knife came to him in his sleep. Apparently Cameron brainstorms best in a dream state: it’s how he thought of Avatar as well.

2. “Yesterday”

Paul McCartney was just 22 when he “woke up with a lovely tune in my head” and thought, “That’s great, I wonder what that is?’” He got up and easily picked the tune out on the piano, but was convinced that it must have been something he heard years ago and subconsciously remembered. After further investigation revealed that it was a McCartney original, he jotted down some lyrics: “Scrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs.” The real words came later, obviously.

3. Frankenstein’s Monster

Mary Shelley was hanging out with her husband (Percy Bysshe, of course), Lord Byron and some other literary notables when they decided to have a writing contest. Mary was stuck—until she went to bed for the night, and had what she called a “waking dream” of a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” Thrilled that her writer’s block was gone, Shelley decided that “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.”

4. Jekyll and Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson had a similar problem: The stories just weren’t coming. He knew he wanted to write about the dual life of a man, but had no idea how to go about it and was frustrated that no plot was presenting itself to him. Then he closed his eyes. “On the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterwards split in two, in which Hyde for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.”

5. Twilight

Whether or not you’re a fan of angsty blood-suckers and pouty werewolves, you have to admit that Stephenie Meyer is definitely doing okay for herself. And she has one particularly vivid dream to thank. “It was two people in kind of a little circular meadow with really bright sunlight, and one of them was a beautiful, sparkly boy, and one was just a girl who was human and normal, and they were having this conversation," she told Oprah in 2009. "The boy was a vampire, which is so bizarre that I'd be dreaming about vampires, and he was trying to explain to her how much he cared about her and yet at the same time how much he wanted to kill her.”

Yep, that’s Twilight. Meyer wrote her dream down, she said, because it was so different from her everyday, stay-at-home-mom life that she wanted to hold on to it. “I just wanted to remember it so badly. That’s why I started writing it down—not because I thought this would be a great story for a novel.”

6. The Necronomicon

H.P. Lovecraft saw his famous book of the dead in his dreams, including the odd title. What that quality REM time didn’t reveal was the book’s meaning: Lovecraft had no idea what the odd word meant but scribbled it down anyway. His rough attempt to translate it from Greek resulted in the fitting “An Image of the Law of the Dead.” He may have been indirectly (or directly) inspired by a first-century poem called the Astronomicon.

7. The Periodic Table

It’s said that Dmitry Mendeleyev was on a three-day work bender when he finally gave in for a few minutes of shut eye. Instead of falling asleep for 17 hours like most sleep deprived people, Mendeleyev dreamt of an arrangement of elements that would change modern chemistry forever, then popped up about 20 minutes later to record it. “I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper ... Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”

8. Jack Nicklaus’ Golf Swing

The subconscious isn’t just a creativity factory—it’s a sports clinic, too. Nicklaus figured out why his game was off after he dreamed that he was owning the links in a way he hadn’t for a while. After analyzing the dream, the six-time Masters champ realized he was gripping the club differently in the dream than he did in real life. “I tried it the way I did in my dream and it worked. I feel kind of foolish admitting it, but it really happened in a dream.”

9. The Sewing Machine Needle

Elias Howe, inventor of the modern sewing machine, had been troubled by how to get the needle to work in his new invention. Having the eye at the base (as in handheld needles) was out of the question. Then, Popular Mechanics reported in 1905, he fell asleep:

“One night he dreamed that he was building a sewing machine in a strange country for a savage king. The king had given him 24 hours to complete the machine and make it sew, but try as he would he could not make the needle work, and finally gave up in despair. At sunrise he was taken out to be executed, and with the mechanical action of the mind in times of great crises he noted that the spears carried by the warriors were pierced near the head. Suddenly, he realized that here was the solution of the sewing machine needle. He begged for time—and while still begging, awoke. It was four o’clock. Hastily he dressed and went to his workshop—at nine o’clock the model of the needle with an eye at the point was finished.”

10. DNA

The shape and structure of DNA eluded scientists until 1953, when Dr. James Watson had a dream that made him consider the double helix. According to Dr. Watson’s alma mater, Indiana University, the dream was of two intertwined serpents with heads at opposite ends, though other accounts say the dream was of a double-sided staircase.

11. Stephen King’s Misery

If bestselling authors are any indication, we should all be taking our worst nightmares and turning them into blockbuster novels. For instance, Kathy Bates breaking your ankle with a sledgehammer. Misery, Stephen King has said, was originally a dream he had on an airplane. “[I] dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer's skin. I said to myself, 'I have to write this story.' Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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