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Laughter Is the Best Medicine

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While the author of the Book of Proverbs remains uncertain (most likely, King Solomon wrote it), its intent is not. The book was written to share insight, and much conventional wisdom originates in its pages. Proverbs 17:22, "a merrie heart doth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones," has transformed into the popular saying, "Laughter is the best medicine." It turns out that King Solomon, et al., were right: Laughing has medicinal applications.

Robin Dunbar, from Oxford University, led a team of researchers who evaluated laughter and its impact on pain perception in the lab and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In the lab, participants watched clips of South Park or The Simpsons before or after researchers exposed the subjects to painful experiences—either by tightening a blood pressure cuff on them or slipping a wine chiller on their arms. At the festival, before and after performances, participants stood against a wall with their legs bent at a 90-degree angle as if they were sitting in a chair until it became so painful they fell on the ground. (My pilates instructor makes us do this, but she calls it a workout.)

Previous research suggested that laughter dulls pain, and Dunbar found evidence that supports this claim.

Groups that either watched or participated in comedy felt less pain than their peers, who watched a documentary. And he found that people who laughed more had an even higher pain threshold than those who only let a few giggles escape. Chuckling with others also increased laughter's positive impact; people are 30 times more likely to laugh in a group than alone. Dunbar believes that laughing triggers endorphins—neurotransmitters produced by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, which spark a feeling of comfort similar to what occurs when someone takes an opiate. Love, excitement, spicy foods, orgasms, exercise, and pain all cause the brain to produce endorphins, which also provide an analgesic effect.

Dunbar further examined the two types of laughter, Duchenne and non-Duchenne. Duchenne laughter is the type of natural chuckle that people experience when they see or hear something funny, which is often contagious. This giggling involves the contractions of the orbicularis oculi muscle (the muscle that enables the eyelids to close) and Dunbar suspects that this packs more pain relief than non-Duchenne laughter, which is emotionless and context-driven and does not involve any muscle activity. Duchenne laughter might be so effective because it involves muscle activity much like exercise or a massage, both of which release endorphins.

Dunbar writes:

"The capacity to sustain laughter for periods of several minutes at a time may exaggerate the opioid effects, thus ramping up the sense of heightened affect that humans experience in these contexts. A key aspect of this may be that social (or Duchenne) laughter is highly socially synchronized. In a study of physical exercise (rowing), synchronized activity ramped up endorphin production."

So next time you're in pain, try watching something funny and having a laugh. It might just help.
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Shown above: The Yue Minjun "Amazing Laughter" sculpture in Vancouver, BC, photographed by Flickr user Matthew Grapengeiser

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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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