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The Quick 10: 10 People with Photographic Memories

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It's hard to say whether a photographic memory actually exists or not. So far, only one really conclusive test has ever been done to prove that there are certain individuals who can look at massive quantities of information and remember it verbatim even years later. But there are plenty of people who have claimed to possess eidetic memory (that's the official name). Here are 10 of them.

1. Tesla. According to Tesla himself, photographic memory was just one of his brain quirks. He said he had no problem memorizing entire books, but also experienced random, blinding flashes of light that were sometimes accompanied by hallucinations as well. Tesla had detailed flashbacks to earlier parts of his life and could visualize his inventions in astonishing, complicated detail before he even started tinkering with making them come to life.

2. Teddy Roosevelt could recite entire newspaper pages "“ not just articles "“ as if they were sitting in front of him. He was also a speed reader and is reported to have read two or three books a day.

3. Kim Peek. Peek was the real-life Rainman "“ he was the person Dustin Hoffman's character was based on in the 1988 movie. Before his death just last year, Peek was said to have memorized every word of every book he had ever read, estimated at around 9,000. It took him up to just 12 seconds to read one page, and each eye could read a page independently.

4. Abbie Hoffman made the claim in his 1968 book Revolution for the Hell of It that he was able to remember things in great detail after merely a glance.

5. Guillermo del Toro. The director of Pan's Labyrinth (love that movie) and the upcoming Haunted Mansion movie (love that ride) is said to have photographic memory. Maybe that's why his movies are so visually interesting.

6. Jerry Lucas. He was an amazing basketball player from the "˜50s to the "˜70s and has even been named one of the top 50 players to ever master the sport. But it's his impressive memory that's paying the bills these days. Lucas has written 60+ books on memory, has developed a memory-retention system and travels the country giving lectures on the subject. Memorized lectures, I'm sure.

7. Ferdinand Marcos. The president of the Philippines was said to have a photographic memory, which would have come in handy when cataloging Imelda's shoes.

8. Mr. T. Yes, the Mr. T. I'm guessing this is an instance of Mr. T. having a pretty great memory and simply referring to it as "photographic," but I could be wrong. The man who was born Laurence Tureaud says that he didn't need to study in school because of his "photographic memory." "Most of the time I stared out the windows, just daydreaming."

9. Rachmaninov. The composer may have had a type of photographic memory that helped him memorize sheet music with astonishing speed. This was aided by his extraordinary ear for music. Russian composer Alexander Siloti would give him complicated and demanding works to learn and Rachmaninov (also spelled Rachmaninoff) would have it completely memorized to perfection a day or two later.

10. Elizabeth. Not the queen "“ just "Elizabeth." She's the one person who has ever really been proven to possess true eidetic memory. She passed tests that convinced even skeptics, including remembering poetry written in a foreign language she did not know and remembering random dot patterns to an amazing exactness. In fact, she was even able to remember two separate dot patterns, then fuse them together in her mind to reveal a stereographic image "“ that's a "Magic Eye" image to most of us, where you sort of look past the dots to reveal a hidden picture.

Do you know anyone with a photographic memory, or even just an outstanding memory? I have the opposite of photographic memory"¦ mine's terrible.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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