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11 Imagination-Jarring Tips From Creative Geniuses

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There are plenty of competing theories for how to boost your creativity: paint your room blue, work someplace noisy and distracting, complete a bunch of silly sentences Mad-Libs-style. But there’s no better source for creativity advice than a creative genius. Here are 11 tactics practiced by big thinkers, artists, and innovators.

1. Hold your breath

Ig Nobel Prize-winner and Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu, who has more than 3000 patents to his name, has a Plexiglas board installed in his pool. He thinks underwater and takes notes on his board, a process he calls "creative swimming." And while it seems silly to take notes underwater when there are perfectly serviceable desks available, Nakamatsu swears by it, saying "oxygen is the enemy of the brain."

2. Embrace insomnia

Leonardo da Vinci had a lot going for him, what with the still-unmatched talent and cultural importance and, you know. Mona Lisa. But he was a weird mix of perfectionist and procrastinator, and sometimes he'd work for hours on one minuscule detail while leaving the larger scope of a project untouched. To keep himself going for as long as possible, he practiced polyphasic sleep — short naps every four hours, for a total of around two hours of sleep per day. Probably not for everyone.

3. Or just take a nap

Thomas Edison was a fan of the power nap. He gave it a good twist, though, which he claimed was integral to some of his best ideas. Edison would sleep sitting upright in his chair, elbow propped on the arm with a handful of marbles. He would think about his problem until he fell asleep, and soon enough he would drop the marbles on the floor. When the racket woke him up, Edison wrote down whatever was in his head, regardless of what it was—creative solutions, new ideas, a reminder to pick up milk on the way home.

4. Save yourself for science (or what-have-you)

Though he’s been called the greatest geek of all time, Nikola Tesla was a reasonably handsome guy, and the ladies liked him. But he attributed much of his success as an inventor to his strict celibacy, and no evidence exists that in his 86 years he ever had an affair with anyone. Ever. But rumor has it he recreated ball lightning in his lab, so it was probably worth it.

5. Find the bad apple

There's no reason to believe it'll work for anyone else, but Johann Wolfgang von Goethe insisted that a rotten apple on his desk helped him write effectively.

6. Engage hermit mode

Artist Jasper Johns worked three full months of each year in total solitude, painting and hanging out in a cottage in St. Martin from Christmas through March. Before he defiantly flew to Yugoslavia to reclaim his international chess champion title, Bobby Fischer lived for nearly 20 years in undisclosed locations. Add to the list J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Howard Hughes, Emily Dickinson... the list is long, but it's clear that for some people, hiding from the public eye is the key to thinking differently. (With mixed results, obviously.)

7. Chill out for a while

When Cervantes had deep thoughts to think, he filled a tub with frigid water and sat with his feet and calves submerged until he had an epiphany.

8. Head north

Charles Dickens was a quirky guy. One of his required writing-time necessities was a desk that faced due north, and even when he slept he took every precaution to ensure that his body was aligned with the poles—head at the northern end, feet toward the south.

9. Get a little macabre

In addition to his bizarre directional work and sleep arrangements, Dickens also liked to hang out at the morgue, where he watched people work on incoming bodies. He followed his "attraction to repulsion" to crime scenes, too, where he'd try to analyze the locations to solve murders. Whether any of this was helpful to his literary plots is second to the regular practice of thinking creatively to solve hard problems. (That said, there's no report that Dickens ever solved a murder.)

10. Invest in that Clover machine

Just about everyone loves coffee, but almost no one loves coffee in the way Honore de Balzac did. He worked 16 hours a day, tossing back cup after cup of specially blended Parisian java (some sources say he could down 50 cups in a day). To overcome caffeine tolerance, he ate dry grounds, and on an empty stomach, no less, famously saying that after a mouthful of coffee beans, "sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army...."

11. Booze!

Alcoholism and artistry go way back, and everyone has a favorite drinky singer or writer because there's no shortage of them, really. But it seems science is siding with Hemingway and Winehouse on this one: a recent study shows that a few drinks can release your verbal inhibitions (obviously) and allow your mind to wander just far enough to come up with novel solutions to complicated problems. At a blood alcohol level of .075 percent, the study's volunteers were able to solve word association puzzles faster and better than the control group of sober peers.

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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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