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7 Downsides to Being Left-Handed

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The world has been out to get lefties for thousands of years. And while we no longer force 10% of the population to learn to write with their right hand or burn them at the stake as witches, the odds still aren’t stacked in their favor.

1. They Are Left Out of Studies

As Northwestern University psychology professor Robin Nusslock told the Wall Street Journal, many studies about how the brain works specifically prohibit lefties from participating. Researchers do this because they know that left-handed people’s brains are wired differently than righties. Since researchers want their results to accurately reflect the vast majority of the population, including left-handed people would throw off the results. That means when you read an article about some new breakthrough in understanding how our brains function, it most likely isn’t something that directly applies to 10% of people. The same exclusion used to apply to women, until President Clinton signed an act requiring that women be included in clinical trials. Since President Obama is left-handed, perhaps he should insist lefties get equal treatment themselves.

2. They May Get Paid Less

Full disclosure: this one is contentious. Some studies have found there is no difference between handedness and how much a person makes. However, a seminal study by Harvard University found that lefties make 10% less on average than their right-handed counterparts. This may be due partly to the fact that lefties are less likely to complete college. The same researcher found that despite the oft repeated claim that lefties have higher IQs on average than righties, left-handed people actually score slightly lower on math and reading comprehension tests.

Another study published in The Journal of Human Resources found that while left-handed men’s salaries were comparable to righties, left-handed women made significantly less.

3. They're Easier to Scare

In one study at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, right- and left-handed people watched clips from Silence of the Lambs. Afterwards, the researchers asked the subjects to talk about some of the scarier scenes from the film. The lefties overwhelmingly gave more fragmented, inaccurate accounts with more repetition. Researchers already knew that lefties are almost twice as likely to suffer from PTSD as righties, and it doesn’t take a majorly disturbing event before differences in our fear levels start to show. Scientists think this may be because the right side of a lefty’s brain is dominant, and that is the side that controls our fear response.

4. They Get Angrier Faster

Various studies have found that lefties are quicker to anger than righties, but until recently no one knew why. In 2010, a paper in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease posited that it was because left-handed and ambidextrous people’s brain hemispheres interact more than right-handed people’s. While this might sound like a good thing, it means that logic (mostly left brain) and emotion (mostly right brain) get mixed together more often than is “normal.” As a result, things that 90% of the population could deal with calmly are more likely to anger lefties.

5. They're Linked to Schizophrenia

Scientists know that being left-handed is at least partly down to genetics. A person has a much greater chance (26%) of being a lefty if both parents are southpaws. And research has even isolated the gene that may contribute to handedness. The bad news? The gene, LRRTM1, also appears to have something to do with people developing schizophrenia. Only 1 in 100 people have the disorder, but an inordinate 20% of suffers are left-handed.

6. They Drink More

Back in the 1970s, a paper called “Left-Handedness and Alcoholism” raised the possibility that left-handed people were more likely to be alcoholics than right-handed people. The study was purely observational, however. Until recently, no hard evidence existed that linked handedness to drinking habits. It turns out that lefties aren’t more likely to be genetically disposed to addiction, but on average they do drink more often, and in greater quantities than righties. Since excessive alcohol consumption alters your brain chemistry and can eventually lead to physical dependence, this may be one possible explanation for why the previous study noticed a prevalence of left-handed alcoholics.

7. The World Is Trying to Kill Them

The world isn’t just driving lefties to drink, though. It’s also killing them. Left-handed people seem to expire anywhere from a few months to a few years before righties, all other things being equal. One of the deadliest problems is simply that the world isn’t laid out best for lefties. This leads to left-handed people being five times more likely to die in accidents than right-handed people.

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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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