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Longevity from Bees, Headgear that's cool, and Why Cavemen are Sexy

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Bite Down to Change Songs

My least favorite part about the iPod is having to always stop running to pull it out to switch songs. The researchers at Osaka University must have had me in mind when they came up with a creative new way to control a music player- teeth. They've designed a piece of head gear that detects when the user is clenching their teeth, which can then be used to control a music device. Clenching on the left skips a song, while clenching on the right side makes a song start or stop. They say this dental technology could also be adapted for cell phones, slide presentations and wheelchairs. If it catches on, then temporomandibular joint disorder could be the new carpal tunnel.

Why Brad Pitt is hot

will-smith-400a314.jpgIt's commonplace for companies to use attractive people in their commercials; T-Mobile had Catherine Zeta-Jones, Coors Light had the Coors Twins and GEICO has those cavemen. What, you don't think the cavemen are sexy? Actually, it turns out that ancient cavemen had facial structures like those of attractive men today. A group of researchers studied dozens of skulls from southern Africa and found that the males with a relatively small upper face (upper lip to brow) lived on in evolution and attracted the most mates. Ironically, this accompanied a decrease in the size of the canine teeth, so they looked less threatening. Among today's men that fit the "hot caveman" facial structure: Kanye West, Brad Pitt, David Beckham and the granddaddy of the scrunched face, Will Smith.

Judge Not by the Color of One's Skin

Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed of a day when we wouldn't judge people by the color of their skin, but I bet he never dreamed about the day when we would change the color of people's skin. Scientists discovered skin cells called keratinocytes that can control how much pigment is present in a person's skin. They think these cells can be manipulated to create more convincing cosmetics and skin grafts, making the new skin blend in well with a person's original skin. Feel free to toss in any Michael Jackson joke you choose.

PLUS: Speedy T-Rexes and Why bees will help us live forever, all after the jump!

Who would win in a race?

t-rex.gifI'll admit, I was never all that scared of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. I always figured I could just run away, so the velociraptors were more frightening to me. It turns out I was wrong about that; a new computer model shows that a T-Rex could outrun a human pretty handily. By going back through simulated bone structures and measuring the speeds of those animals, two researchers at the University of Manchester in England managed to create a workable computer model of a T-Rex running, which they raced against similar bipeds and showed just how slow humans really are.

Could Bees Help us Live Forever?

Bees seem to make a lot of appearances in these weekly wrap-ups, but this may be their biggest contribution yet; they might hold the secret to reversing old age. An Arizona State University researcher found that some worker bees, whose life expectancy is four to six weeks, end up getting a second lease on life after they care for the queen, resulting in a refreshed immune system and a life span ten times their original expectations. The key is a protein that gets released into their body, which reverses most symptoms of aging. The researchers are studying the protein for use in humans and say its not unreasonable to think that we might someday be able to increase our lifespan tenfold, too.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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