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5 Disorders Caused by the Internet, TV, Magazines and Movies

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1. Truman Show Delusion

Until a studio light fell from the “sky” near his house, Truman Burbank lived a perfectly normal life. Then he found out that his entire life was spent on the set of a TV show, and everyone he ever knew was in on the ruse.

The movie The Truman Show came out in 1998, and by 2002 brothers Joel and Ian Gold (a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry, respectively) were meeting patients convinced that their lives were recorded and broadcast 24/7, and that everyone they’d ever known was in on it. One man, certain he was being fooled by crafty actors and elaborate sets, traveled to New York after 9/11 to see Ground Zero for himself. He’d assumed the attack was part of his show, and that seeing the towers standing would be his proof. Another sought asylum from his show in a Manhattan federal building.

Truman Show Delusion’s name didn’t come around until 2008, and was coined by the Gold brothers after a number of patients cited the movie as a direct parallel to their lives. Over 40 cases have been verified, mostly in white men ages 25-34.

2. Münchausen by Internet

Like Münchausen syndrome—wherein a person pretends to be ill, victimized in some way, or suffering from psychological trauma in order to get attention and sympathy from others—Münchausen by Internet is a patterned behavior of feigned illness, trauma or victimization carried out on the Internet. When the disorder was first identified in 2000, this took place mostly in chat rooms, forums or via IRC. Nowadays you’ll see it playing out via blogs and social media accounts, most famously in the case of 40-year-old Debbie Swenson.

For two years, Swenson blogged about her (fabricated) experiences as a 19-year-old girl with leukemia. “Kaycee Nicole” garnered a huge following, as did Swenson herself, who blogged separately as Kaycee’s mother. In 2001, when Swenson reported that Kaycee had died of an aneurysm, Kaycee’s followers became suspicious of Swenson, who refused cards and gifts and wouldn't divulge funeral details. After discovering piece by piece that Kaycee never existed, the fictional girl’s followers demanded an explanation; eventually Swenson admitted that she’d combined the stories of a few real cancer patients to build a believable character.

3. Conversion Disorder

Conversion disorder used to be called “mass hysteria,” and generally it occurs only in groups of people who spend a lot of time, or a significant moment in time, together. The symptoms—nervous tics, for example—appear to be neurological, but don’t have a neurological cause. In theory, it’s spread by unconscious mimicry of others with the symptoms, similar to the way one person’s yawn can make an entire roomful of coworkers yawn.

But a case of Tourette’s-like symptoms afflicting a dozen students in LeRoy, New York, is changing the way we define a “group.” After a few girls experienced tics, verbal outbursts and twitching, they began posting videos to YouTube to discuss the mystery illness befalling their town. Soon after, more students began exhibiting similar symptoms, and at least one researcher thinks the spread was facilitated by the use of social media. University at Buffalo neurology professor Dr. David Lichter told WKBW: "I think you do have the potential for people going online and witnessing other students' behavior, then I think this medium has the potential to spread it beyond the immediate environment." The girls’ case has been diagnosed as conversion disorder, but if it is actually spreading via YouTube, this will be the first documented case of conversion disorder spread via video.

4. Paris Syndrome

Ah, the City of Light. Everyone is model-gorgeous and well-dressed, there’s never more than a few feet between you and the nearest world-class boulangerie, and no matter where you go, there’s someone playing accordion.

Except that’s not how Paris is at all. Some unsuspecting tourists discover this the hard way, just before they experience depression, palpitations, hallucinations, dizziness, tachycardia and feelings of aggression, hostility and prejudice from others. Paris Syndrome is seen almost exclusively in Japanese tourists, a phenomenon the president of the Franco-Japanese Medical Association links to highly idealized imagery of Paris in Japanese magazines.

The most likely contributing factor is the deep language barrier; few French nationals speak Japanese, and just as few Japanese tourists speak French. And even for the few who know both languages, idiomatic phrases and casual slang contribute to greater confusion. Add in a serious difference in cultural formality, jet lag, and the cognitive dissonance of the inexplicably absent accordion music, and you have the makings of a full-on anxiety attack. The Japanese embassy has instituted a 24-hour hotline for suffering travelers, and there’s even a short documentary on YouTube.

5. Mean World Syndrome

Watching the news can be a real downer, with wars and natural disasters and violent crime dominating the top stories. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that some people might be led to believe the world is a much scarier place than it actually is.

One of the primary tenets of cultivation theory, the social theory under which Mean World Syndrome is defined, is that the more media a person is exposed to, the less like reality his or her perception of the world becomes. With long-term, cumulative exposure to news and popular media that depict a world vastly more violent and dangerous than the one in which we actually live, mass media “cultivates” a new reality in people’s minds—a mean one. The incidence of Mean World Syndrome has increased over time as access to various media forms has increased. The predominant symptom is agoraphobia, but generalized anxiety and interpersonal relationship and trust issues seem to also be related.

The three-statement Mean World Index is used to map a person’s perceptions of the real world against those who consume more or less television (or other media) by rating the statements on a false/sometimes/true scale:

Most people are just looking out for themselves
You can’t be too careful when dealing with people.
Most people would take advantage of you if they had the chance.

Careful and repeated studies show that those who watch more TV are more likely to report that people can’t be trusted or would be likely to turn on a friend if it served their interests.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]