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Have you ever smelled something in a dream?

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The human brain is often cited as one of the last great frontiers of scientific discovery, and never does this resonate more with me than right after I wake up from a particularly intense, and peculiar, dream. We spend almost half our lives asleep, but it seems like most of what happens in our heads during that time is a mystery; you can't record dreams, just as you can't photograph thoughts, and memory for such things -- mine especially, even just after waking -- is such a fickle thing.

We discussed here a few months ago the great importance that the olfactory sense has to emotion, and certain kinds of memory:

Smell is the sense most closely associated with emotional memory — just think about how evocative certain scents can be — and the one most closely tied to mental health and happiness. Positive and negative associations with certain smells are locked into our brains from an early age and stick with us the rest of our lives, and to lose that sense of smell is to, in effect, lose a part of our memory. It's the subtlest of the senses, but perhaps the most crucial in terms of our emotional connection to the world.

This seems like such a basic, caveman kind of question to be asking about the nature of ourselves -- but then, that's exactly why the brain still looms as an important frontier -- and it's this: if smells are so important to our emotional connection to the world, and dreams can be so very emotional, why aren't smells more prominent in dreams?

Think about it -- when the last time you remember having smelled something in a dream? (For me, the answer is ... never.) There are some accounts of "olfactory dreams," like this one from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams:

Eau de Cologne was held to his nostrils. He found himself in Cairo, in the shop of Johann Maria Farina. This was followed by fantastic adventures which he was not able to recall.

... or this one from a study conducted at Wellesley College in 1901:

I dreamed of looking off toward Milton and saying that beyond lay the ocean. I immediately got the keenest and most natural smell of wind from the flats and the delicious ocean odor. This gave me such intense pleasure, as it always does, that I awoke.

But strangely enough, sleep researchers contend that the other senses have a much greater impact on dreams -- the sound of a buzzer could easily induce a sleeper to dream of a buzzer -- and olfactory dreams are rare. (It makes me think of watching movies -- the closest thing to dreaming while awake -- and how dependent they are on the aural and visual, and how strange it would be if "smell-o-vision" were the norm.)

But our faithful readers always seem to have such interesting and diverse experiences when it comes to dreams, I'll bet there are some of you out there who've had smell dreams. Or who've had dreams influenced by smells that wafted over them while sleeping. If so, do tell!

Other dreamy posts:
How Do Your Memories Smell?
Waking Up Strange
Should You Wake a Sleepwalker?

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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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