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Zombie Neurobiology

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If you've ever wondered what makes zombies rise up and chase down fresh brains after they're dead, you're not alone. Harvard psychiatry professor and avowed sci-fi geek Dr. Steven C. Schlozman wondered too, and after a great deal of late-night movie watching and necro-diagnostic research, has fashioned himself into probably the world's foremost expert on zombie neurobiology. Mark Strauss of io9 took an in-depth look at some of the good doctor's theories, a few of which I've harvested (word choice!) here for your flossy amusement. (They originally appeared in Schlozman's article "Zombies on my Mind.") Read on ... if you dare!

The Frontal Lobe

This part of the brain is involved with "executive functioning" - enabling us to think carefully and solve problems in an abstract way. Clearly, there's not much going on there if you have the misfortune of being afflicted with living deadness. But we do know that zombies can see us and sense us. Schlozman concludes that zombies possess just enough frontal lobe activity to "listen" to the thalamus, through which sensory input is processed.

But the frontal lobe function most relevant to understanding zombie behavior is the control of "impulsivity"-the general term for when you do something and, if you had two more seconds, you might not have done it. For instance, if in a fit of rage you have the sudden urge to punch your boss in the face, the frontal lobe intervenes and allows you to consider why that might be a bad idea.

The Ventromedial Hypothalamus

In the movies, zombies are always hungry, no matter how many supporting actors they consume. The most likely explanation is that zombies don't have a properly functioning ventromedial hypothalamus: the region of the brain that lets you know whether you've eaten enough. The result is hyperphagia. Zombies will eat and eat and eat, but never feel satiated.

That raises a slightly awkward question: If zombies are constantly eating, then how come they never poop?

Schlozman doesn't know for sure, but he has at least one promising theory: Maybe the living dead are constipated.

Now we know why zombies are always moaning.

The Cerebellum and the Basal Ganglia

Science may once and for all settle the heated debate over whether "the infected" in 28 Days Later could be classified as zombies.

Schlozman says "no," observing that "the infected" possess "some sort of higher cortical function going on that allows them to hunt humans." Moreover, the fake zombies in 28 Days Later exhibit fluidity of motion. They can run, jump, climb and quickly change direction-activities that the true Romero zombies are incapable of performing.

Clearly, zombies suffer from cerebellar and basal ganglia dysfunction (duh!). Those are the parts of the brain that make fluidity of motion possible. The basal ganglia helps us with coordinated movement. The cerebellum helps us with balance. In fact, if you visit the website of the National Institutes of Health and read about cerebellar degeneration (such as ataxia), the symptoms match the familiar gait of the living dead: "a wide-legged, unsteady, lurching walk, usually accompanied by a back and forth tremor in the trunk of the body"¦"

Want more (info on) brains? Check out the rest at io9, or bone up on the classics and watch Night of the Living Dead -- in its entirety -- right here!

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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