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This is Your Brain on God

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Debate has long raged between atheists and the faithful about whether God is all in our heads, and the discovery of a so-called "God module" in the brain has only fanned the flames. While a group of neuroscientists at the University of San Diego were studying the brain patterns of epileptics, they stumbled across something they weren't expecting: that epileptics who suffer a certain kind of seizure are often intensely religious, reporting an unusual number of visions, communications with God and even paranormal experiences. Further tests revealed that there's a specific place in the temporal lobe (the aforementioned "module") which flares up when faithful subjects are asked questions about their faith, and that this spot was a common focal point for electrical discharges during epileptic seizures. Those San Diego neuroscientists quickly issued forth a theory: that "there may be dedicated neural machinery in the temporal lobes concerned with religion, which may have evolved to impose order and stability on society." So did our brains create God -- or did God create our brains?

Another fascinating neuro-religious study hit the news tongues.jpgin 2006, concerning evangelical Christians who "speak in tongues" during church services. Tongues-speakers have long claimed that their glossolalia is something greater than themselves speaking through them; that they give themselves up to the sacred during services and are in a state of benevolent possession (also known as being "baptized in the Holy Spirit," "getting the ghost," and so on). University of Pennsylvania researchers decided to see what was really going on in the evangelicals' heads, so they took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues at church and found that, much to their surprise, the results did little to cast doubt on the womens' own descriptions of their state. While speaking in tongues, the language centers as well as the frontal lobes -- the thinking, willful part of their brain that controls most behavior -- were quiet. While these women were dancing and shouting, speaking in a gibberish that would take more concentration to invent on the spot than normal speech, their speech and behavior centers weren't doing much. Which is to say, the images supported the women's interpretation of what was happening to them; it was as if they were under the control of something else, in a state of mental possession. (Watch people speak in tongues here.)

We're hearing more all the time about religion through the lens of neuroscience, and much of what's come out has been like the two examples above -- a fascinating mixed bag. What do you think? Do these studies prove or disprove anything? Can science and religion be friends and play nice?

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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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