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Bookworms Have Better Brains in Old Age

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For some, being lost in a book is better than watching a movie. And although it might seem that bookworms let the world pass them by while their noses are stuck in a book, their love of reading will serve them well: According to a new study from the July issue of Neurology, readers and other mentally active folks have boosted brainpower in old age.    

"Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as [reading, writing, and playing with puzzles] across a person's lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age," says study co-author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, senior neuropsychologist at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center.

For six years prior to their deaths, 294 people took cognitive tests, which examined their memory and clear thinking. The subjects also recounted how frequently they exercised their brains by reading a newspaper or book (or favorite blog, ah hem); writing a letter; playing a thinking game like chess or Sudoku; or visiting a museum or theater. All the subjects, part of the Rush Memory and Aging Process, donated their brains to science so that the researchers could examine them after death. (Currently, the only way to definitively determine if someone suffers from Alzheimer's is to look at the brain post-mortem for tangles, lesions, and plaques, hallmarks of the disease.)

Subjects who read, wrote, and played puzzles experienced fewer cognitive problems; what's even more interesting is that mental activities stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Even if their brains displayed plaques, tangles, and lesions, people who exercised their brains did not exhibit behaviors of Alzheimer's.

“Based on this, we shouldn't underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves, and our parents or grandparents," Wilson says. 

Not a big reader? Never fear—it’s not too late to start. The study finds that people who challenged themselves later in life lowered cognitive deficits by 32 percent. The bad news: People who didn’t engage in mental acrobatics experienced cognitive decline 48 percent faster.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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