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Miryachit, the Mysterious Siberian Mental Disorder

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You know how kids will "copy" one another just to be annoying? This usually leads to whines of protestation: "Mom! Tell Jimmy to quit copying me!" Well, if Jimmy were a Siberian Russian around the turn of the last century, chances are he would've been diagnosed with Miryachit -- a bizarre condition the description of which I recently stumbled across.

The only definitive article on the subject of miryachit seems to have been written by a 19th century surgeon named William Hammond, who based his theories on a report written by the captain of a Navy ship sailing past Siberia to Europe in the summer of 1882. I've heard about some strange psychological disorders, but I've never heard of anything like miryachit. What follows is a pitiful account of a Siberian ship's steward being tormented by his crewmates in what amounts to the opposite of the "make him quit copying me!" scenario:

It seemed that he was afflicted with a peculiar mental or nervous disease, which forced him to imitate everything suddenly presented to his senses. Thus, when the captain slapped the paddle-box suddenly in the presence of the steward, the latter instantly gave it a similar thump; or, if any noise were made suddenly, he seemed compelled against his will to imitate it instantly, and with remarkable accuracy. To annoy him, some of the passengers imitated pigs grunting, or called out absurd names; others clapped their hands and shouted, jumped, or threw their hats on the deck suddenly, and the poor steward, suddenly startled, would echo them all precisely, and sometimes several consecutively. Frequently he would expostulate, begging people not to startle him, and again would grow furiously angry, but even in the midst of his passion he would helplessly imitate some ridiculous shout or motion directed at him by his pitiless tormenters. Frequently he shut himself up in his pantry, which was without windows, and locked the door, but even there he could be heard answering the grunts, shouts, or pounds on the bulkhead outside. He was a man of middle age, fair physique, rather intelligent in facial expression, and without the slightest indication in appearance of his disability.

"We afterward witnessed an incident which illustrated the extent of his disability. The captain of the steamer, running up to him, suddenly clapping his hands at the same time, accidentally slipped and fell hard on the deck; without having been touched by the captain, the steward instantly clapped his bands and shouted, and then, in powerless imitation, he too fell as hard and almost precisely in the same manner and position as the captain.

More fascinating still, it seems that this particular condition is (or was) widely known in Siberia, and yet had rarely if ever been seen outside of it.

In speaking of the steward's disorder, the captain of the general staff stated that it was not uncommon in Siberia; that he had seen a number of cases of it, and that it was commonest about Yakutsk, where the winter cold is extreme. Both sexes were subject to it, but men much less than women. It was known to Russians by the name of 'miryachit.'"

Other reports of the era compare miryachit to a similar condition noted in Java, called "Lata," and to a condition peculiar to a group known as "The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine," which "was characterized by a marked and violent jump in response to sudden noise or startle." But I can't find anything debunking or really expanding on the condition -- or very much written about it at all after the turn of the 20th century -- and it makes me wonder, A) how many other "regional" diseases/disorders might be out there, and B) how many other bizarre conditions were described a century or more ago without anyone ever bothering to follow up?

In any case, the mind is a strange place, and the science of the mind is -- I think it goes without saying -- far from settled.

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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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