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How To: Use All Of Your Brain

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Tip #1: Be Alive
Actually, that's pretty much all you have to do. Despite what the Uri Gellars of the world would have you believe, you're already using all of your brain. Everybody (from otherwise respectable media mavens to shamefully misinformed teachers) has probably told you at some point that humans only use 10 percent of their grey matter, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The myth most likely originated from the phrenology craze of the early 19th century, when pseudo-scientists were busily chopping up the brain into overly distinct control sectors. Later, some of the early and very rough experiments in neuroscience involved hooking electrodes up to the brains of test subjects. Stimulating some parts of the brain cause instant, and obvious, physical reactions. But, when the electrodes were applied to other spots, there seemed to be no effect at all. Scientists called these areas "the silent cortex." By the 1930s, stories of these cranial dead zones had morphed into the oft-repeated "factoid" that quickly became a favorite of advertising writers, self-help salesmen, and paranormal power hucksters—all of whom claimed to have the secret to unlocking that ostensibly unused 90 percent. It didn't help matters much that respected scientific figures such as Margaret Meade and Albert Einstein (Say it ain't so!) thought nothing of stepping well outside their own realm of scientific knowledge to repeat the 10 percent claim as if it were truth. But, just because some of the 20th century's greatest minds were suckers for an urban legend, doesn't mean you have to be. The next time someone brings up the 10 percent figure, flatten' "˜em out with this one-two logic punch.

Real Fact! The "silent cortex" zones that neuroscientists discovered in the 19th century later turned out to be running some very important functions—like language and abstract thought. Personally, we'd rather not live without those, thanks. Modern brain imaging systems clearly show that there aren't any vast swaths of useless cerebral cortex lying around. Although we don't use every part of our brain constantly, we do use just about all of it at some point throughout the course of a given day.

Real Fact! Ever hear a doctor on your favorite surgical drama tell a patient that their head wound isn't a big deal because it hit the 90 percent of the brain they don't use? Yeah, you won't hear that from a real doctor, either. If we truly did only use 10 percent of our brains, we would be able to remove big chunks of the grey stuff and not have it matter much at all. But that isn't the case. Take away 90 percent of human brain's volume, and you're left with something roughly akin to the size of a sheep's brain. Cut out a chunk, and there will be consequences.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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