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The Secret World of Sleep: 4 Weird Things About Catching Zs

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What happens after we head to bed each night? Do we simply snooze, or do we enter into a dimly lit place of wonders, terrors and peculiar science? Given that this is mental_floss, do you even have to ask?

1. Fatal familial insomnia

Have you ever not been able to fall asleep, yet felt so tired you think you might just die? Those unfortunate enough to have this disease actually do. An exceptionally rare, heritable condition, it's 100 percent fatal. According to scientists who have studied the disease, it’s caused by malfunctioning brain proteins. The brains of those afflicted look much like sufferers of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human form of mad cow disease).

But don’t freak out just yet—you almost certainly don’t have fatal familial insomnia. It’s been documented in only 28 families worldwide, and only five of those are in the United States.

2. First and second sleep

The usual eight hours a night aren't the only way to snooze. Historians have found that before the industrial age, people actually slept in two parts. The first sleep, right after sundown, was for a few hours. Around midnight or 1 a.m., folks would get up, have a bite to eat, converse, possibly make love, and eventually settle down for their second sleep.

Virginia Tech historian Roger Ekirch theorizes that the two-part system is actually more natural for humans, and that many sleep problems stem from our insistence that we stay in bed for eight hours straight.

“For most of evolution we slept a certain way,” sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs told the BBC. “Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology.” So if you're wide awake tonight, don't beat yourself up. Take the opportunity to live like your ancestors.

3. Hypnic jerk

You’re drifting off to sleep. It’s peaceful, your white noise machine is on, and all is well with the world. Until it’s not. You’re jolted back to awareness with a peculiar muscle spasm. What just happened?

You just experienced a hypnic jerk—and you’re not alone. Researchers believe they happen to some 70 percent of the population. What causes the condition isn’t clear, but it can be worsened by anxiety, over-exertion before sleep, or caffeine.

And while most people have experienced a hypnic jerk, just be glad you likely haven’t had to deal with exploding head syndrome

4. Demon on your chest?

Some 40 percent of all people have experienced at least one episode of sleep paralysis—disturbed REM sleep in which you feel trapped and unable to move. While the experience can be terrifying, it isn’t actually dangerous, according to sleep experts.

Multiple cultures have explained the phenomenon by claiming that demons are pinning down the sleeper (in medieval legends, we know those demons as a succubus or incubus). The human brain wants to explain the unexplainable—and if it has to blame evil supernatural forces, so be it.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]