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11 Problems Music Can Solve

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REUTERS/PETR JOSEK/LANDOV

Music is a splendid thing. It can cheer you up when you're sad, make you dance like a fool, and allow you to drown out the world when you need to. But music has its scientific uses, too. The documentary Alive Inside details how dementia patients react positively when given iPods filled with their old favorite songs. The music seems to help them "come alive" again. While listening to familiar songs, many of the documentary's patients can sing along, answer questions about their past, and even carry on brief conversations with others.

"Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience," says neurologist Oliver Sacks, who appears in the film. "Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory."

The documentary follows recent studies showing that music can improve the memories of dementia patients, and even help them develop new memories.

Here, a look at some other things music has been known to "cure":

1. Low Birth Weight

Babies born too early often require extended stays in the hospital to help them gain weight and strength. To help facilitate this process, many hospitals turn to music. A team of Canadian researchers found that playing music to preemies reduced their pain levels and encouraged better feeding habits, which in turn helped with weight-gain. Hospitals use musical instruments to mimic the sounds of a mother's heartbeat and womb to lull premature babies to sleep. Researchers also say that playing calming Mozart to premature infants significantly reduces the amount of energy they expend, which allows them gain weight.

It "makes you wonder whether neonatal intensive care units should consider music exposure as standard practice for at-risk infants," says Dr. Nestor Lopez-Duran at child-psych.org.

2. Droopy Plants

If music helps babies grow, can it do the same thing for plants? Dorothy Retallack says yes. She wrote a book in 1973 called The Sound of Music and Plants, which detailed the effects of music on plant growth. Retallack played rock music to one group of plants and easy listening music to another, identical group. At the end of the study, the 'easy listening' plants were uniform in size, full and green, and were even leaning toward the source of the music. The rock music plants had grown tall, but they were droopy, with faded leaves, and were leaning away from the radio.

3. The Damaging Effects of Brain Damage

Of the 1.5 million Americans who sustain brain damage each year, roughly 90,000 of them will be left with a long-term movement or speech disability. As treatment, researchers use music to stimulate the areas of the brain that control these two functions.

When given a rhythm to walk or dance to, people with neurological damage caused by stroke or Parkinson's disease can "regain a symmetrical stride and a sense of balance." The beats in music help serve as a footstep cue for the brain.

Similarly, rhythm and pitch can help patients sing what words they can't say. A study of autistic children who couldn't speak found that music therapy helped these children articulate words. Some of these kids said their first words ever as a result of the treatment.

"We are just starting to understand how powerful music can be. We don't know what the limits are." says Michael De Georgia, director of the Center for Music and Medicine at Case Western Reserve University's University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.

4. Teen Loitering

Public libraries, malls, and train stations already know this: Teenagers typically don't like classical music. In fact, they dislike it so much that "it sends them scurrying away like frightened mice," says the LA Times. The theory is that when the brain hears something it dislikes, it suppresses dopamine, "the pleasure chemical." And as teenagers' moods fall, they go elsewhere to find something to bring it back up.

So if you want the neighbor kids to get off your lawn, turn up the Tchaikovsky.

5. Hearing Loss

OK, maybe music can't cure hearing loss, but it may help prevent it. A study of 163 adults, 74 of them lifelong musicians, had participants take a series of hearing tests. The lifelong musicians processed sound better than non-musicians, with the gap widening with age. "A 70-year-old musician understood speech in a noisy environment as well as a 50-year-old non-musician," explains Linda Searling at the Washington Post.

6. A Broken Heart

Not the kind caused by rejection, but the kind caused by a heart attack. Music can help patients who are recovering from heart attacks and heart surgery by lowering blood pressure, slowing the heart rate and reducing anxiety. As a preventative, try listening to "joyful" music, or songs that make you feel good. Research says listening to songs that evoke a sense of joy causes increased circulation and expanded blood vessels, which encourages good vascular health.

7. Poor Sport Performance

In 2005, a UK study found that listening to music during sports training can boost athletic performance by up to 20 percent. That's roughly equal to the boost some athletes get from illegal performance-enhancing drugs, except music doesn't show up on a drug test. For best results, try music with a fast tempo during intense training and slower songs during cooldown.

8. Grumpy Teens

In a 2008 study, researcher Tobias Greitemeyer wanted to study how lyrics impacted teenagers' attitudes and behavior. To do so, he exposed one group of teens to "socially conscious" songs with a positive message, like Michael Jackson's "Heal the World." Another other group listened to songs with a "neutral" message. The researchers then "accidentally" knocked over a cup of pencils. The group listening to positive songs not only rushed to help more quickly, but picked up five times as many pencils as the other group.

9. Illiteracy

A 2009 study comparing two groups of second graders from similar demographics suggests learning music boosts reading abilities. The only major difference between the two groups was that one learned music notation, sight-reading and other skills, while the control group did not. Each group was tested for literacy before and after the school year. The end-of-year scores for the control group improved only slightly from their beginning of the year scores, while the kids with a music education scored "significantly higher," especially on vocabulary tests.

10. Sluggish Alcohol Sales

Are you a wine store owner suffering from an overstock of German vino? Try pumping some German tunes through your store. A 1999 study showed that doing so boosted German wine sales, and similarly, playing French music boosted French wine sales. Customers said they were completely oblivious to what music was being played.

11. Wine Snobbery

Ever purchased a bottle of wine with recommended listening printed on the bottle? Well, makers of cheap wine may want to consider that tactic. A group of researchers say certain types of music can "enhance" the way wine tastes by up to 60 percent. In a study, wine-drinkers rated white wine as 40 percent more refreshing when it was accompanied by "zingy and refreshing" music ("Just Can't Get Enough" by Nouvelle Vague was their go-to zingy song). The taste of red wine was altered 60 percent by "powerful and heavy music" like Orff's "Carmina Burana."

"The tongue is easy to dupe." says Jonah Lehrer at Wired.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some $8 chardonnay that needs a little help from Tina Turner.

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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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