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Gettin' Down With Your Fear of Heights

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I've always had problems with heights, perhaps to an irrational degree. Growing up, we had a fold-down ladder that led from the garage to the attic, and for years, I hated climbing it. Once I got used to that, I found the courage to climb the big oak tree in our backyard -- until I fell out of it one day, smacking my head on a few branches on the way down and landing in a big pile of spiny plants. Ouch. I figured heights weren't for me and that was that, and for years I avoided them. Until recently, that is.

My wife joined a climbing gym, and I started to tag along. Then in New Zealand, I realized that my having any fun at all kind of depended on me facing this fear -- or at least managing it -- so that I could do the helicopter tours, small plane flights, paragliding, walks along rickety swing bridges and scenic drives up hair-raising, barrier-less switchbacks without having panic attacks. I succeeded to a degree -- here's proof -- and it got me wondering about acrophobia, the fear of heights, and what makes it tick. Here's some of what I learned.

Latching onto that early falling-out-of-tree episode, I grew up believing my fear was mostly associative. But I was wrong -- unlike most phobias, acrophobia is one of the few that's non-associative. Studies have shown that you're not conditioned to be afraid of heights; it's more of a hard-wired, Darwinian thing. An experiment called the "visual cliff" done on babies (creepy!) proved that even infants are wary of heights: when presented with a glass floor that had a clear view of a 10-foot drop beneath it, many infants, toddlers and young animals were reluctant to venture onto it.

So why the differences in people's experiences of acrophobia? Why can my wife climb a 30-foot wall with merely a rope attached to her waist while I get the willies at half that height? Researchers have wondered this too, and some have found that a person's balance is a key factor. It should surprise no one that people with balance disorders usually report a fear of heights, but it seems this is a two-way street; having a fear of heights may indicate that you have a balance disorder, if only a slight one. From Wikipedia's surprisingly adept entry on the subject:

The human balance system integrates proprioceptive, vestibular and nearby visual cues to reckon position and motion. As height increases visual cues recede and balance becomes poorer even in normal people. However most people respond by shifting to more reliance on the proprioceptive and vestibular branches of the equilibrium system. An acrophobic, on the other hand, continues to overrely on visual signals whether because of inadequate vestibular function or incorrect strategy. Locomotion at a high elevation requires more than normal visual processing. The visual cortex becomes overloaded resulting in confusion. Some proponents of the alternative view of acrophobia warn that it may be ill-advised to encourage acrophobics to expose themselves to height without first resolving the vestibular issues. Research is underway at several clinics.

This phenomenon, by the way, is totally distinct from that of vertigo, a rarer disorder in which sufferers experience acute dizziness triggered by certain visual stimuli (usually peeking over the edges of tall things). In any case, the idea that my fear of heights is related to my balance makes a lot of sense to me, because let's face it -- I'll never be a ballroom dancer. My balance sucks. My wife, on the other hand, does Pilates twice a week and spends a lot of time building up the strength in her core (ie, her center of balance), which must have something to do with it, and also -- crucially, I think -- she's pretty short, and I'm pretty tall.

Here comes my crazy hypothesis, and the reader response portion of the blog. I'm 6'3. My center of gravity is higher than most people's, and it's common knowledge that, as in the case of some high-set, flip-prone SUVs, it's harder to stay upright when your center of gravity is raised. (Ever see a low-rider flip over? It's hard to do.) By extension, doesn't it make sense that tall people are more likely to be afraid of heights than short people? I've certainly met more tall agoraphobics in my life than short ones, though it's my no means a rule. But answer me this:

Are you afraid of heights?
If so, do you feel your fear is tied to a particular traumatic event you experienced, or totally non-associative?
And finally -- how tall are you?

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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]