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The Single Life: Single-Celled Organisms

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It was a rainy night in LA, and I woke up this morning to find all my plants stretching their necks into the windowpane to try and cash in...Which got me on an anthropomorphic kick & thinking about the Backster Galvanic response studies, which conjecture that microbial life responds to our emotions. When interviewed, Backster talks about what happened one time he made coffee:

Often I hook up a plant and just go about my business, then observe what makes it respond. One day back in New York City I was making coffee. The coffee maker we had in the lab was a dripolater, where you put a teakettle on, boil the water, pour it in, and it drips down. We normally didn't empty the teakettle, but just topped it off later. This particular day, however, I needed the teakettle for something else, and so poured the scalding water down the sink. The plant being monitored showed huge reactions. It turns out that if you don't put chemicals or very hot water down the sink for a long time, a little jungle begins to grow down there. Under a microscope it's almost as scary as the bar scene in Star Wars. Well, the plant was responding to the death of the microbes.

The death of locality? Bell's Theorem, which justifies the reciprocal spinning of a remote atom in response to a local atom, could clarify. More about microbial coups after the jump...

Though this may seem very Edward Gorey, here's what Cleve Backster observed in:

orangeOranges: When threatened with a knife, they overwhelmed an oscilloscope with their reaction.

eggcrackPlants: A Galvanic Response Meter recorded dramatic activity when eggs were cracked, when shrimp was cooked, and when jam was mixed into yogurt.

whole chickenYogurt: It responded with interest to the bacteria in leftover chicken.

blood cellsWhite Blood Cells: They go with you...Backster recalls:

We took the white cell samples, then sent the people home to watch television. I would have preselected a program that would elicit an emotional response from them--for example, showing a veteran of Pearl Harbor a documentary of West Pacific enemy aircraft attacks--and then I taped both the program and the response of their cells. What we found was that cells outside the body still react to the emotions you feel, even though you may be miles away.

The greatest distance we've tested has been about three hundred miles. Brian O'Leary, who wrote Exploring Inner and Outer Space, left his white cells here in San Diego, then flew home to Phoenix. On the way he kept careful track of different things that aggravated him, carefully logging the time of each. The correlation remained over distance.


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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]