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Real Oscar Stories: Philomena

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Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction—or, to be more accurate, the truth is all you need for a great movie. Such is the case with Best Picture nominee Philomena, starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

The True Story

In 1951, 18-year-old Philomena Lee met a young man at a carnival in Limerick, Ireland who bought her a toffee apple and gave her her first kiss. On July 5, 1952, long after the fair-going man was gone, Philomena gave birth to his son at the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, where her family—ashamed at finding Philomena pregnant and unwed—had sent her.

Since Philomena couldn’t pay for the medical services and lodging she received at the convent (which amounted to £100), she paid her dues by living and working in the laundry there for the next three years. During that time, she was allowed to see her son, Anthony, for one hour each day. Then, in 1955, Philomena watched hopelessly as Anthony was loaded into the backseat of a stranger’s car and taken from the convent, from the country, and from her life. Forever.

Unbeknownst to Philomena, the nuns at the convent had put Anthony Lee up for adoption and an American family who had come to adopt a little girl took him home (in exchange for a £1,000 “donation"). The nuns told Philomena that since she was unable to provide her son with a good life, they had found a Catholic family in the U.S. who could. She was told that if she ever spoke a word about her pregnancy, her son, or the adoption, she would burn in the fires of hell. Her suffering, they said, was penance for her shameful sin.

Philomena took the nuns’ harsh words seriously and kept her ordeal secret for 50 years, telling the truth only to her first husband, John Libberton. In 2002, Philomena finally told her adult daughter, Jane, about Anthony. Jane immediately joined in the search for her long lost brother and, after several months, discovered that Anthony had died in 1995 at the age of 43.

Anthony’s adoptive parents, Philomena learned, had renamed him Michael A. Hess. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1977, and then went on to receive his law degree from George Washington University. Hess, who was openly gay, then pursued a political career, rising through the ranks in Washington D.C. and eventually becoming chief legal counsel to the first Bush Administration. In the late ‘80s, Hess was diagnosed with AIDS.

Before he died, Hess—who had been told nothing of his birth mother except that she abandoned him—had also searched for information regarding his past. In 1977, Hess traveled to Sean Ross to question the nuns about his origins, only to be sent away with nothing. In 1993, knowing he was dying, Hess made one last trip to Ireland; again, the nuns provided no information. The man once known as Anthony Lee made a large donation to Sean Ross Abbey in exchange for permission to be buried in the graveyard there, hoping that his mother would find him someday—and that’s exactly how it happened. Jane was searching through photos of headstones at the convent when she discovered one that matched Anthony’s birthdate.

The Movie

Philomena’s story sounds like a dramatic tale engineered just for Hollywood, but the film actually sticks pretty closely to the facts. The screenplay was based on the 2011 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by British journalist Martin Sixsmith. Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan in the film) worked closely with Jane and Philomena for years to unravel the true story of Anthony’s life, even traveling to the U.S. and the White House to investigate.

Though the film takes a few liberties for dramatic effect—for example, there’s a scene where a nun confronts the adult Philomena and berates her for the “mistake” she made as an 18-year-old—for the most part, what you see in the movie is the tragic truth.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”