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Does Pavlov Live on in DJ Casper? Convince Me I'm Wrong.

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Though it may seem ridiculous, I've had a theory for a long time that the best modern example of Ivan Pavlov's work is a line from DJ Casper's dance hit "Cha-Cha Slide." The whole song is just a series of instructions, but one line in particular sticks out (those who haven't attended an event with a DJ in the last six years can watch the video here). At about the 2:10 mark, DJ Casper calls out "Everybody clap your hands," which is followed by a steady rhythm of clapping from the crowd. Every time I've heard that line, be it at a dance, wedding or sporting event, it's followed by the same rhythm of applause. At the last baseball game I attended, they played that single line and all audible conversations stopped so people could concentrate on their clapping. I had always presented my theory about the hand clapping as our generation's classical conditioning (a la Pavlov's dogs) half-jokingly until last weekend. I was absent-mindedly driving when the "Cha-Cha Slide" came on the radio. Without thinking at all, I took my hands off the wheel (while I was still driving, mind you) to clap my hands. That just confirmed my belief that DJ Casper is Pavlov reincarnated.

pavlov2.jpgEven though evidence of conditioning is all around us, I found it a little (a lot?) depressing to think that my best example of Pavlov's legacy is a Bar Mitzvah staple dance track, so I've been looking into other good examples.

E-mail pings, The Office, and a chance to win a free t-shirt all after the break!

One that we're all familiar with is the email ping. In the early days of AOL, the dulcet tones of "You've got mail" were enough to cease any activity to check the mailbox with the expectation of some exciting correspondence. In fact, on this 12-step program for email addicts, step 6 is to disarm the chime. Shoppers at Kmart since 1965 have been conditioned by the store's on-again, off-again blue light specials. These brief sales were signaled by a flashing blue light, which would attract shoppers in search of discounted prices. Plenty of people are conditioned in college to switch songs for school spirit; growing up in Ohio, I can't help but think of shouting O-H-I-O during "Hang on Sloopy," and I don't even like Ohio State. I also can't think of anyone who hears "knock knock" and doesn't respond with "who's there?" Finally, it may not be an everyday example, but I'd still be remiss if I didn't pass on this hilarious clip from The Office about Pavlov in action.

One example I wasn't convinced by was this essay by Reverend David a Noebel from the 60's (scroll down). He contends that rock "˜n' roll, or as he calls it, Beatle-music, is full of stimuli designed to illicit delinquency in America's innocent teenagers.

"We contend that rock 'n' roll, certainly a strong external stimulus, is producing this artificial type of neurosis in our teenagers, and causing teenage mental breakdowns to reach an all time high.... Rock 'n' roll, with its perverted music form, dulls the capacity for attention and creates a kind of hypnotic monotony which blurs and makes unreal the external world."

Readers, I'm turning it over to you. I want to hear your non-dance track suggestions for the best examples of Pavlov's work in everyday life. In fact, I'm going to give out a Pavlov T-shirt from the mental_floss store to the best one, so write your answers in the comments section already!

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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]