Original image
Google/Erin McCarthy

How Evil is Your Head?: 9 Illustrations from a 1902 "Character Reader"

Original image
Google/Erin McCarthy

Meet Louis Allen Vaught. He was born in 1859, and his masterpiece, Vaught's Practical Character Reader, was self-published in 1902. The physical address of his “publishing company” was also, according to these advertisements, home to the dubious sounding Human Science School and the Chicago Institute of Phrenology.

Vaught was a physiognomist. Physiognomy had been a “science” since ancient Greece, and it waxed and waned in popularity over the millennia until the 20th century. Those who believed in it sought to sum up the soul and strengths of a person simply by looking at their physical characteristics—to apply structure to the natural instinct to judge on appearance, which humans have always done and likely will always do. (The slope of a brow suggests criminal inclinations, the cut of your nose indicates your suitability as a good accountant.) Vaught identified around 40 “Elements of Human Nature,” such as suavity, alimentiveness, and approbativeness. To each of these Elements, there is a corresponding head or facial feature.

Eventually, physiognomy became closely aligned with phrenology (the same concept, instead using only skull bumps), which was discredited in the 20th century. Though there are instances of revival, most people today put little stock in the shape of a person’s ear cartilage reflecting the shape of their spirits.

Vaught’s illustrations show that he subscribed to the “Bugs Bunny” philosophy of criminality. His sample subjects look somehow incomplete without a raccoon mask and a bag with a dollar sign printed on it. However, if you are able to imagine these cartoon characteristics as actual human ones, you might learn a lot about your community. Maybe even about yourself! Let’s find out just how evil your head is.

1. Tricky and Deceitful

The first lesson. Never trust a bald, pointy-headed 1930s gangster with Spock ears. That fellow is trouble.

2. About Face

Where phrenology focuses only on the variances in skull bumps to read character, Vaught’s “research” allowed him to add facial features to the list.

3. One Bad Mother

The inferiority of this woman as a mother is indicated by her concave “backhead.” This is the center of mother-love, and it bulges in a true mother.

4. Young Ladies, Beware!

This man’s head shows signs of an overly large Amativeness (sexual desire) region. He also appears to have a dishonest nose and a chin severely lacking in constancy.

5. Case Study 

The arrows indicate the proof of Vaught’s theories. Says Vaught, “Robert Louis Stevenson's talent was of the order of genius. He could not have produced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without a great development of the faculties of Form and Comparison. In a study of his head we were struck with the very great development of his faculty of Form.”

6. Constitutional Laziness

“Genuine laziness is the result of deficient Destructiveness, Combativeness, Approbativeness, Acquisitiveness, Self-esteem, Firmness and Conscientiousness. No one really likes hard work of any kind who is weak in the faculties of Destructiveness and Combativeness.”  Maybe so, but I bet this guy knows all the lines from The Big Lebowski by heart. I’d hang with him.

7. The Nose Knows

The husband is drawn with a touch more fear in his eyes than the wife. The Hope Element on this skull could use some thumping.

8. Man is Matter

Existential Crisis? It’s your engorged Alimentiveness and Amativeness Faculties.

9. The Source of Corns

This passage I thought really encapsulated Vaught’s theories and teaching style. That is to say, it’s easy to imagine the first draft of this book having been scrawled on an asylum cell wall with broken crayons. But we laugh only from the safe vantage of the future. In 100 years the DSM-5 might look like it was cobbled together by lunatics in celebration of themselves. And for that matter, I don’t believe any of the DSMs have ever been kind enough to try and decipher bunions, as the good Mr. Vaught has done for us. Thank you, Mr. Vaught. Science marches on.
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
Original image
© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.