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New Research Shows Mars-Bound Astronauts Need Their Sleep

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It might not be one giant leap for mankind, but a mission completed on November 4, 2011, is definitely one small step toward sending men to Mars. On that date, a team of six international volunteers finished a 520-day simulated trip to our red neighbor that included more than 90 experiments and realistic scenarios astronauts might encounter on the journey. The goal of the simulation was to gather psychological and medical data on the effects of long-term deep space flight, and yesterday, a team of researchers led by faculty at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Baylor College of Medicine released the results of their study, which looked at the impact of prolonged confinement on sleep, performance, and mood in astronauts.

"The success of human interplanetary spaceflight, which is anticipated to be in this century, will depend on the ability of astronauts to remain confined and isolated from Earth much longer than previous missions or simulations," said Dr. David F. Dinges, professor and chief, Division of Sleep and Chronobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, and co-lead author of the new study. "This is the first investigation to pinpoint the crucial role that sleep-wake cycles will play in extended space missions."

The mission, developed by the Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was broken into three phases: 250 days for the journey to Mars, 30 days on the surface, and 240 days for the return to Earth. The astronauts were confined in a 723 square foot spacecraft-like facility in Russia for the duration of the simulated mission. During that time, the U.S. research team continuously monitored the crew’s rest-activity patterns, monitored light exposure, and administered weekly, computer-based neurobehavioral assessments to determine the extent that sleep loss, fatigue, stress, mood changes, and conflicts occurred in the 17 months of confinement.

The data gathered by the researchers, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that as the mission progressed, the crew grew more sedentary; there was less waking movement and more sleep and rest time. Most crewmembers had one or more disturbances of sleep and altered sleep-wake intervals, which suggests a disruption of circadian rhythm. Crewmembers also showed decreased alertness.

Preventing these types of disturbances will be a matter of building the right kind of spacecraft, one that artificially mimics Earth’s sleep-wake cycles using light exposure. Appropriate nutrition and exercise will also be factors in keeping crewmembers on circadian rhythm.

This research doesn’t just have takeaways for people hoping to take a trip to Mars; in fact, it underscores how important getting a good night’s sleep is for everyone. “As a global society, we need to reevaluate how we view sleep as it relates to our overall health and ability to lead productive lives,” Dinges said. “Whether it is an astronaut being challenged to reach another planet or a newborn baby just learning to walk, the human body's need for sleep is as essential as our need for food and water and integral to our ability to thrive."

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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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