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5 Tech-Savvy Tricks to Help You Get a Good Night's Sleep

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By Chris Gayomali

Have trouble getting shut-eye? You aren't alone. An estimated 50 million to 70 million U.S. adults suffer from sleep or wakefulness disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, that's a healthy chunk of the population going through the day like zombies. There are, however, a few easy and tech-savvy tricks you can use to make your nightly trips to dreamland a little bit easier. While we can't promise that these will work for everyone, here are a few of our favorites:

1. Use white noise to mask other sounds

Technology now makes it really easy to drown out that leaky faucet or snoring pooch. If you'd rather not doze off with a fan pointing at your face, you could try the free White Noise app for iOS and Android, which uses ambient sounds to help you relax. (Dr. Oz called it a "sleep miracle.") Or, if you don't want to use your phone, there's a website called that replicates the gentle buzz of an old TV receiver. Just leave it on in the background — my eyes are getting heavy just thinking about it. 

2. Kill the glow 

Recent studies all show the same thing: The bright light emanating from your laptop, tablet, and phone — gadgets that many folks, including myself, use in bed — is doing terrible, horrible things to your circadian rhythm. That's where f.lux comes in. It's a popular program that automatically adjusts your screen's brightness and color settings depending on the time of day. "When the sun sets, it makes your computer look like your indoor lights," write f.lux's creators. "In the morning, it makes things look like sunlight again." The difference is noticeable. Give it a shot.

3. Work out before bedtime

This shouldn't really come as a surprise, but new research from the National Sleep Foundation found that people who exercised regularly—whether in the morning or right before bed — said they "snoozed better than those who didn't work out, even if they got the same amount of shut-eye each night," says CBS News. We like the Nike Training Club app (available for iOS only), which uses videos to help you circuit train — a regimen that includes leg kicks, Russian twists, and mountain climbers.

4. Manage your circadian rhythm

The bedtime calculator is useful for folks short on time. Basically, it helps ensure that you don't wake up in the middle of one of your sleep phases, which can leave you feeling tired and groggy. Here's how it works: You select the time you need to wake up. (Let's say 7 am.) The calculator then gives you a set of potential sleep times (in this case, 10 pm, 11:30 pm, 1:00 am, or 2:30 am) to shoot for. When you wake up at 7, you should feel good as new — even if you went to sleep at 2:30. 

We also like the Sleep Cycle app for iOS and Relax Timer app for Android. The premise behind the two is the same: You tuck your phone under your pillow right before bed, and your device's super-sensitive accelerometers and gyroscopes record all the tossing and turning you do over the course of a night. Since you move differently during each of your sleep phases, the apps' soothing alarms wake you up when you're in the lightest phase (within a thirty-minute window of when you need to get up). Some skeptics dismiss the technology as pseudoscience. Other users swear by 'em. At the very least, both apps do a pretty good job of coaxing grumpy ol' you out of bed — which is half the battle, anyway.

5. Upgrade your alarm clock

For many people, this is the worst sound in the world:

Consider upgrading your phone's native alarm clock to something less cloying. The Rise app for iOS, which has one of the most beautiful interfaces we've ever seen, is currently all the rage with the tech crowd. It uses morning-friendly alarms (with file names like "gentle chimes" and "traveling winds") to ease you out of your cozy slumber.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]