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4 People With Super Memory

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What if you finished reading this article and remembered every detail of it for the rest of your life? That's the problem people with super-autobiographical memory face—and yes, it's often referred to as a problem, not a gift. Their minds are like a computer hard drive that retains everything: dates, middle names, license plate numbers, even what they eat for lunch on a daily basis. There are only four confirmed super memory cases, a disorder experts say is somewhat related to OCD, though no doubt there are plenty others who haven't been identified yet.

So who are the four individuals who've all recently been the subject of a study at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine? Let's meet them and find out"¦

1. Bob Petrella

bobA Los Angeles based producer for the Tennis Channel, Bob Petrella may remember every number in his cell phone, but it's his ability to recall sporting events that's most remarkable. Give him a date, like March 30, 1981, and he could tell you not only that it was the day Reagan was shot, but also that Indiana beat North Carolina for the NCAA championship that evening. Even more impressive: when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, his favorite team, you can show him a single freeze frame from most any game that he's seen, and he can tell you not only the date of the game, but the final score.

According to a piece on ABC news, Petrella "remembers all but two of his birthdays since he turned 5. He recalls where he was and what he did with high school buddies. Grainy images of the 1970s are vivid pictures in his head. "˜I remember all my ATM codes,' he said. "˜I remember people's numbers. [I] lost my cell phone Sept. 24, 2006. A lot of people, if they lost their cell phone, they would panic because they have all these numbers. I didn't have any numbers in my cell phone because I know everybody's numbers up here [in my head].'

2. Jill Price

jillProbably the best known of the four, Jill Price has described her "˜gift' as "nonstop, uncontrollable and totally exhausting." She was the first to be diagnosed with the condition, and recently published a memoir, The Woman Who Can't Forget. Price remembers most details of nearly every day she's been alive since she was 14 and compares her super memory to walking around with a video camera on her shoulder. "If you throw a date out at me, it's as if I pulled a videotape out, put in a VCR and just watched the day," she has said.

Like Bob Petrella, Price calls California home, though working as an assistant at a Jewish religious day-school, she's about as far from Hollywood as you can get. And although people she meets at parties are impressed with her ability to remember everything from the date of the Lockerbie plane bombing (December 21, 1988) to the last episode of Dallas (May 3, 1991), in her memoir, she describes super memory as a nuisance, partly because she can't seem to forget painful events, like when someone she was crushing on rejected her.

3. Brad Williams

bradFor every Jill Price, there's a Brad Williams, a Wisconsin radio anchor who embraces his super memory and enjoys having it tested. Ask him what happened on November 7, 1991 and he'll tell you that it was the day Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. But Williams does not stop there. "It was a Thursday," he once said in an MSNBC piece. "There was a big snowstorm here the week before."

Unlike Bob Petrella, Williams has a tough time with sports, but excels at pop-culture trivia. For instance, he could name you every Academy Award winner and even nailed all five questions in the category "1984 Movies" when he appeared on Jeopardy! in 1990.

Although the folk at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine don't agree, Williams says he never saw his ability as anything out of the ordinary. "Growing up, I never really had reason to think I wasn't like everyone else," he has said. A feature-length doc on his life, titled Unforgettable, is presently in production.

If you're interested in the subject, remember to check it out once it hits theaters.

4. Rick Baron

rickA Cleveland, Ohio native, Rick Baron came out and announced his super ability directly to USA Today, after reading a piece the newspaper published on Jill Price. Unlike Price, Baron uses his super memory to win stuff. Although unemployed, he's extremely resourceful and is constantly entering and winning trivia contests. His list of rewards includes restaurant gift cards, tickets to sporting events, even all expense paid vacations (Baron has won 14 of them). Baron claims to remember every detail of his life since the age of 11, and is usually pretty successful at remembering the day-to-day going all the way back to when he was seven.

According to the USA Today piece on Baron, his sister claims he shows signs of hardcore OCD. "He organizes and catalogs everything. He even keeps his bills in order of the city of the Federal Reserve Bank where they were issued and also by how the sports teams in that city did."

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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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