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My Sleep Apnea: The Beginning

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It's time for a new occasional feature! Rejoice! In this column, I'll talk about my personal experience being diagnosed with sleep apnea, what treatments are available, the science behind the condition, and (hopefully) my miraculous improvement after being treated. For this first entry, I'll talk about the experience leading up to my sleep study. In future columns I'll reveal the diagnosis and treatment, and you can follow along as I try to catch some sleep. Before we begin the narrative, let's get a quick definition of "sleep apnea" from Wikipedia (slightly edited for clarity by me):

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. Each episode, called an apnea, lasts long enough so that one or more breaths are missed, and such episodes occur repeatedly throughout sleep. The standard definition of any apneic event includes a minimum 10 second interval between breaths, with either a neurological arousal, a blood oxygen desaturation of 3-4% or greater, or both arousal and desaturation. Sleep apnea is diagnosed with an overnight sleep test called a polysomnogram, or a "Sleep Study" which is often conducted by a pulmonologist.

...the individual with sleep apnea is rarely aware of having difficulty breathing, even upon awakening. Sleep apnea is recognized as a problem by others witnessing the individual during episodes or is suspected because of its effects on the body. Symptoms may be present for years (or even decades) without identification, during which time the sufferer may become conditioned to the daytime sleepiness and fatigue associated with significant levels of sleep disturbance.

My sleep problems started probably ten years ago, during college, when I became aware that my snoring was really loud. And let me dwell on this a moment -- we're talking sawing logs with industrial machinery loud. The term "epic" was used to characterize my snoring, and neighbors in my college apartment building actually complained. I tried using several nose-opening devices, nasal sprays (disgusting!), sleeping with my mouth closed, and different sleeping positions, but nothing seemed to help. Eventually I ended up in a corner apartment where my neighbors couldn't hear me: problem solved?

Rewinding a few some point during my teenage years, my father had been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. He and I have very similar body types, including a predisposition for charming plumpness as well as a relatively narrow airway in the throat. I have a small mouth (at least relative to my neck), and I still have my tonsils. So it stood to reason that I might develop obstructive sleep apnea as well.

In the time since my snoring became an issue and my recent diagnosis, I really didn't do anything about my sleep problems. I've always been a very sleep-positive person, often sleeping in until noon (and beyond) on weekends. Over the last year or two, I found myself even sleepier: spending entire weekend days asleep, and ultimately not feeling refreshed. Something was wrong. I went to my doctor, who did a bunch of blood tests and ultimately referred me to the Sleep Disorders Program at a local medical institution.

The sleep specialist had me fill out extensive questionnaires about my sleep history and habits, and did some physical tests and a complete interview before prescribing a sleep study. Now, let me back up a little bit here: I actually had a sleep study before. Three years ago, in a similar bout of sleeplessness, I had been sent off to a somewhat lower-rent sleep clinic for a study (which was not preceded by a consultation with a sleep specialist). That experience was a disaster: I spent the night covered in wires and surgical tape, vaguely panicked, and ultimately unable to sleep. After ten hours, they finally discharged me without having slept at all. The study was inconclusive, and my insurance paid handsomely for the ordeal. So when I was prescribed another sleep study, I was wary. Well, let's just say it: I hated the idea. The previous study was awful, lying in the dark for ten hours struggling to sleep while connected to various machines, occasionally being interrupted by lab techs over a speaker asking me why I wasn't sleeping. I didn't want to go through that again to end up with nothing.

This time, things would be different, the sleep specialist said. For one thing, the new sleep study would be carried out in a modified hotel suite, rather than a hospital room. In the new study, I was encouraged to bring my own pillows from home (this actually was a real problem at the old study -- their pillows were awful). For another thing, my doctor prescribed Ambien as a sleep aid during the study, and suggested I get used to taking it prior to that night. Finally, being aware of my previous experience, the staff was extra-nice and accommodated my one odd request: I wanted the room to be as cold as possible, to get as close to my home situation as possible. (I sleep in a fortress of solitude in the frozen North.) With the air conditioning set at 64, I was all set.

Next entry: I'll talk about the sleep study -- what was involved, what they were looking for, and how it went. Do you have sleep apnea? Share your experiences in the comments!

(Image courtesy of American Academy of Family Physicians.)

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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]