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How an 18th-Century Mutiny May Help Explain Migraine Headaches

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On April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian and 18 other sailors aboard the HMS Bounty wrested control of the ship from their commanding officer, Lieutenant William Bligh. The mutineers sent Bligh and the members of the crew loyal to him off in a lifeboat in the South Pacific, then set sail to some nearby islands for new lives in a tropical paradise. Over 220 years later, their actions may help researchers unlock the mysteries of the migraine.

A 1,222 Hour Tour

Without charts or a compass, and relying only on a quadrant and his pocket watch, Bligh navigated the lifeboat on a 47-day, 3,618-nautical-mile voyage and safely landed at Timor in the Dutch East Indies. From there he returned to England, two years after he left, and reported the mutiny. He eventually achieved the rank of Vice Admiral of the Royal Navy.

Meanwhile, the mutineers didn’t fare as well. They first attempted to settle on the island of Tubai, but abandoned it after three months of near constant harassment and attack by the natives. Some of the men settled in Tahiti, and the rest moved on to Pitcairn Island, where they burned the ship in what is now called Bounty Bay.  As the mutineers settled into island life, the Crown dispatched the HMS Pandora to retrieve the men and bring them home for trial. The Pandora arrived at Tahiti in early 1791 and 14 of the mutineers were arrested within a few weeks. The ship collided with a part of the Great Barrier Reef during its return trip, losing 31 crew and four of the prisoners, but the remaining ten mutineers eventually made it back to England, where they were tried in a naval court.

The mutineers on Pitcairn managed to avoid detection. Some of them married natives or Tahitians who had hopped aboard the boat when it stopped there. They started families. By 1855, they numbered around 200, and the 88 acres of usable land on the island could no longer sustain the population. Queen Victoria provided some relief and granted the mutineers' descendants Norfolk Island, a former penal colony a few thousand miles west. The next year, they abandoned Pitcairn and settled their new home. Some eventually went back to Pitcairn, and today about 50 people live there. All but a handful -- the pastor, the schoolteacher, and few others -- are direct descendants of the mutineers. The rest stayed at Norfolk, and today’s inhabitants include approximately 1,000 Bounty descendants, about half the island’s population.

No Day at the Beach

Life on Pitcairn and Norfolk can be tough. The only real way to reach Pitcairn is by boat, and storms and rough waters have derailed many of its thrice-annual supply ships. Mail service takes approximately three months, and for medical attention, islanders have to make a several-thousand-mile trip by boat to a New Zealand hospital. Norfolk, which eventually became an external territory of Australia, recently saw a drop in tourism and had to petition the Australian government for financial aid in 2010. As a result, the islanders had to pay income tax for the first time in their history.

And the Bounty descendants on both islands have another problem: headaches.

Migraine affects ~12?% of the Caucasian population worldwide, but among Bounty descendants, the number jumps to 23%, with approximately 12% of males and 33% of females afflicted. This prevalence, combined with their history and living situation, makes the children of the mutiny very attractive to scientists.

Migraine has a strong genetic basis but it’s what medical researchers call a “multifactorial disorder,” meaning that it involves a combination of genes plus environmental triggers, which makes it difficult to study. Two hundred years of geographic isolation, well-kept genealogical records, and restrictions on immigration have left Norfolk and Pitcairn Islands with relatively genetically homogeneous populations where environmental and genetic diversity is reduced enough for effective gene mapping studies, and the islanders are an ideal study sample for studying migraine.

X Marks the Spot?

A team of genomics researchers at Griffith University in Queensland recently studied the islanders at Norfolk, and confirmed earlier research suggesting that at least part of migraine’s genetic cause could be hidden on the X chromosome. Their analysis of the genetics of 377 Bounty descendants associated two mutations on the X chromosome with migraine, which helps explain its increased prevalence among women. Their results also implicated a few other genes with functions as varied as RNA packaging, cell change regulation, protein folding and lipid assembly. They’re now looking harder at these genes and trying to figure out where things are going wrong.

They also think that there’s more where this came from, and that even more genes -- dozens or maybe hundreds -- are involved. More studies like this could eventually isolate other potential migraine susceptibility genes and build up a catalogue of them that could paint a decent picture of the underlying biological pathways of migraine inheritance and susceptibility. In turn, that would help doctors develop better means of migraine diagnosis and treatment, and relieved migraine sufferers might ultimately be able to thank Bligh’s angry crew for putting an end to their misery.

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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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