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Why Are People Ashamed of Being Naked?

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Genesis tells us about the moment humans first "realized" they were naked, quickly followed by the moment they were first ashamed of being naked -- but it doesn't explain why humans were ashamed. Animals are naked (albeit furry), and for tens of thousands of years, so were human beings. So what changed -- and if we wanted to, could we change back, and unlearn our shame? Recently, some British researchers attempted to find out.

Their theory is that the shame of being naked was codified in (most) human societies as a way of protecting mating pairs. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that humans are among the few mammals that mate for life -- and they're also ashamed of being naked.) The thinking goes that humans' natural gregariousness and need to interact outside the family group, coupled with nakedness, created too many temptations to stray from the mating pair.

That's where our shame of nudity comes in. Over thousands of generations, we've learned that showing off a naked body sends out sexual signals that threaten the security of mating pairs. And we've chosen to agree that that is a bad thing. Shame is the ideal emotion to enforce that code of conduct. Because it feels unpleasant, we avoid it at all costs.

So what was this crazy study? As part of a BBC television program, a group of psychologists took a group of ordinary British folks, and in a few days attempted to break down some of the societal prohibitions regarding nakedness amongst them, to see if they could ever start to feel comfortable being naked in the presence of strangers. From the BBC:

Eight ordinary people - none of them nudists - were recently brought together for an experiment filmed by the BBC's Horizon programme, to test some of the scientific theories that explain why naked bodies make us so uncomfortable. Among them were Phil, 39, from Birmingham and Kath, 40, from Dorset. Kath's greatest worry was that people would laugh at her. Some of the men in the group were more concerned about inappropriate excitement.

After a series of experiments, Phil and Kath, who had been so self-conscious at the start, each came face-to-face with a newly stripped fellow volunteer. They were invited to paint the body in front of them, colour coding every patch of skin to show how uncomfortable they felt touching that part of the body - red for no-go; yellow for squirming and green for fine.

Phil drew the line at colouring his subject's genitals, but Kath had lost all her inhibitions. Within moments she'd painted her subject completely green. Every inch. Over a couple of days, the volunteers had unlearned many of the social conventions that normally govern their life, and reached a new consensus that permitted them to be naked in each other's company.

It chimes with the psychologists' theory that we are not born with a shame of nudity. Instead we learn it, as an important behavioural code that allows us to operate in human society.

What do you think? Is being clothed an outmoded societal remnant, or is it still necessary to "protect mating pairs"?

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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