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Predicting the Future (or at Least Predicting Where Naked People Are)

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In his article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Daryl Bem recalls a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass between Alice and the White Queen. Alice complains that “one cannot believe impossible things,” and the White Queen retorts, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Why is Daryl Bem, respected psychologist known for his contribution to our understanding of self-perception, quoting lines from a book about nonsense and impossible things? Because he wants scientists to believe in one abnormal thing—humans can predict the future.


To discover the basis of the sixth sense, or ESP, Bem administered nine different tests to 1,000 students at Cornell University. Most of the tasks required that the students predict something.

For one test, he asked 100 students to look a noun, which popped up on a computer screen for three seconds, visualize it, then move on to the next word. After this repeating this exercise with 48 nouns, he asked the students to type in as many words as the remembered. Following this, the computer randomly selected half of the words and the students looked at the words and memorized them. They were better able to remember words they had randomly recalled and retyped after the first quiz. Bem writes: “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words.”

If this wrinkle in recall seems unconvincing perhaps Bem can sway you with our ability to predict erotic pictures. Students looked at a computer screen with two curtains. One curtain hid a naked picture while the other did not. Bem asked the students to predict which curtain hid the porn. This exercise gives students 50-50 odds. But Bem found that in 53.1 percent of the time, the students correctly predicted which curtain covered the salacious images. In fact, when the students repeated this test with ordinary pictures they were only able to correctly predict where the picture was 49.8 percent of the time. Some argue his results aren’t statistically significant enough to prove the existence of ESP and researchers who have attempted to replicate his findings have failed.

But, Bem finds a lot of inspiration in Through the Looking Glass. He writes about the White Queen telling Alice that her memory works both ways—in recalling the past and seeing the future. While Alice balks, the Queen quips: “It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

Bem couldn’t agree more.

Most scientists don’t believe in things like ESP and after reading this paper, they still don’t; in fact, many think Bem is a little loopy for pursuing it. To get to the truthiness of this controversial issue, Stephen Colbert interviewed Bem about time traveling porn last Thursday:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Time-Traveling Porn - Daryl Bem
www.colbertnation.com
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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