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7 Scientific Solutions for Annoying Little Problems

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by Elizabeth Maine

Scientists are working to alleviate those maddening, irritating, altogether obnoxious things that can make your everyday life hell. And not a moment too soon!

1. Cereal Dust

THE DILEMMA Ever notice when you open a box of granola that the nuts and raisins are on top while smaller riffraff lingers at the bottom, making it all but impossible to eat a well-rounded bowl of cereal? This phenomenon is known as the “Muesli Effect,” and it describes the tendency of different size particles to separate, with the largest paradoxically ending up on top and the smallest down below. It also occurs in bags of mixed nuts, which explains why Brazil nuts are always on top (thus the alternate nickname, the “Brazil Nut Effect”), and in gardens, which is why no matter how many rocks you remove from the soil, there are always more next spring, rising up from the Earth’s depths.

It’s the bane of manufacturers, who (like you) prefer their mixtures to stay mixed, and since the 1930s, leagues of cereal physicists have struggled to solve this puzzle. It defies logic: Shouldn’t the bigger, heavier particles sink and the lighter, littler particles rise to the surface? Some blame a process called “granular convection,” whereby larger particles float on top of the smaller granules, which act like a liquid. Others point to percolation, in which the small grains trickle downward, or “fluid drag,” which impacts how much particles move when they’re jostled.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION While the Muesli Effect is still largely a mystery, inroads have been made toward some solutions. In 1996, engineers led by Kurt Liffman at the Advanced Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Australia announced research showing that the way containers are shaken during packaging could make a difference. “By shaking a pile of particles ‘vertically,’ i.e. in the direction parallel to gravity, we obtain the ‘Muesli Effect,’ where the large particles, initially, rise to the top,” they said at a conference. “Conversely, by shaking the box horizontally, we obtain the ‘reverse Muesli Effect,’ i.e. where the large particles, initially, fall to the bottom.” Unsatisfied with the temporary cereal harmony, engineers are still working on a new type of packaging that could keep the dust where it belongs.

THE QUICK FIX So what does this mean for average breakfasters craving both raisins and crunchy oats in their morning cereal? If you open a box and see mostly large particles, hold the box upright and shake it side to side to make them sink. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s far more effective than turning the box upside down. Science proves it!

2. Overheard Cell Phone Conversations

THE DILEMMA Why is it so easy—and irritating— to get sucked into other people’s cell calls no matter how hard we resist? Cognitive scientists have dubbed this phenomenon the “halfalogue” and have studied why it’s so awful. In one experiment, volunteers played simple computer games—such as following a dot with a mouse—while listening to monologues, dialogues, and halfalogues. People listening to halfalogues performed the worst. The reason, researchers theorize, is that these half-conversations eat up more of our attention as we try to piece them together. “When the brain listens to speech, it builds expectations millisecond by millisecond for what it will hear next,” explains study co-author Michael Spivey, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Merced. “When those expectations are violated, it’s disruptive to the smooth processing of the human mind.”

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION Thankfully, cell phone companies are aware of the mass aggravation caused by their wares, and engineers are working on technology to dampen the din. Certain Samsung phones, for example, include an early-generation “Whisper Mode” that makes use of a hypersensitive microphone, so you can speak more quietly and be far less audible to those around you. While this feature isn’t yet common—or perfected—most manufacturers are working on ways to make babble less bothersome.

THE QUICK FIX Spivey’s team has come up with an alternate (albeit somewhat spurious) solution: Since their research shows that dialogues drain less of our brain power than halfalogues, you can reclaim some peace of mind by politely asking chatty cell phone users to put their conversations on speaker, so you can hear both sides. Chances are this request will be met with strange looks and (we hope) stunned silence.

3. Songs Stuck in Your Head

THE DILEMMA If you’ve been compulsively humming “Poker Face” for the past, oh, 17 hours straight, then you’ve been bitten by an “earworm,” says James Kellaris, associate professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati and author of the study “Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on the ‘Song-Stuck-in-Your-Head’ Phenomenon.” In his paper, he writes: “Just as certain biochemical agents (histamines) have physical properties that can cause the skin to itch, certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain—a cognitive itch. The only way to ‘scratch’ that itch is to rehearse the tune mentally. This repetition actually exacerbates the itch, so the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle or feedback loop.”

Insanity-inducing songs that are simple, repetitive, and contain some incongruity—a slight odd element—are the most likely to get stuck, with “Macarena,” Barney’s “I Love You,” and “Whoomp! (There It Is)” among the worst offenders. “But only half the answer resides in the song,” Kellaris says. “Characteristics of listeners also contribute to the earworm phenomenon. Musicians are more prone than the general population, probably due to their greater levels of exposure to music and to the repetition experienced in rehearsal. And women appear more susceptible than men. When an earworm is greeted with a panicky When on earth is this going to stop? reaction, it will stick around longer. Research shows that men seem to have more success in simply ignoring earworms and waiting for them to go away.” Generally, earworms are more likely to attack when we are tired, stressed, or in an otherwise weakened state.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION The best cure is to employ what Kellaris calls an “eraser tune” to eat the worm. “An eraser tune devours an earworm by combining the benefits of both distraction and replacement,” says Kellaris. “Cognitively, the brain can do only so much at once, so if it is engaged in processing an eraser tune, that limits its capacity to continue an earworm.”

THE QUICK FIX Pull out your iPod and listen to a new, less annoying song three or four times in a row. Of course, if your eraser tune is too catchy, it might just replace one earworm with another. “That is a risk,” Kellaris acknowledges. “Ideally, eraser tunes should be something more complex and less repetitive than the earworm to keep it from lodging in your head. Again.”

4. Whiny Kids

THE DILEMMA What’s more distracting than the screech of a buzz saw, nails slowly dragging across a blackboard, or a nuclear detonation? It’s the high-pitched wail of a screaming baby or the incessant whine of a toddler. Rosemarie Chang, psychology instructor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, asked study subjects to do math problems while listening to a variety of annoying background noises. Unruly kids took the prize as the most distracting noise.

THE QUICK FIX Chang theorizes that crying and whining, forms of “attachment vocalization,” evolved as ways for kids to get their parents’ attention and ensure survival (or at least scam a Power Rangers toy at the mall). And parents unwittingly encourage their tykes by responding with their own form of attachment vocalization, called “motherese” —that excruciating singsong otherwise known as baby talk. They spur each other on endlessly. So when the kids are old enough to form sentences, cut the goo-goo speak!

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION What about older kids? The way to derail a teen whining about borrowing your Volvo, says Welsh inventor Howard Stapleton, is to fight fire with fire. At age 12, Stapleton accompanied his dad to his factory job and was shocked when adults weren’t bothered by the high-pitched assembly line hum. He discovered that adults gradually lose the ability to hear high frequencies. So Stapleton invented a device called the Mosquito, which emits a high-pitched grating sound that’s typically audible only to people under 24. He’s sold 10,000 units worldwide, largely to retailers who want to keep unruly teens from congregating.

5. Long Work Meetings

THE DILEMMA It’s 3 p.m., your blood sugar’s at an all-time low, and you’re trapped in a marathon meeting that refuses to end. Oh dear God … is that yet another PowerPoint presentation?

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION While there’s little you can do to escape this particular hell, scientists have pinpointed a technique to make your time more bearable: Pick up a pen and start doodling! It may seem counterproductive, but scribbling helps you concentrate, says Jackie Andrade, a cognitive psychologist at Plymouth University (England) and author of the study “What Does Doodling Do?” in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Study subjects who doodled while listening to a droning teleconference remembered far more of the content than nondoodlers. The reason, Andrade theorizes, is that drawing geometric shapes and weird animals is less distracting than what you’d be doing otherwise: daydreaming. “Research shows that daydreaming uses a lot of mental energy. Once that process begins, it becomes very hard to get back on track,” Andrade explains. “A simple task like doodling might occupy just enough brain power to keep you from spacing out but not so much that it will disrupt the main task you’re trying to concentrate on.” She also points out that doodling complements meetings particularly well, unlike sneaking a peek at a text message, which competes for verbal processing resources.

THE QUICK FIX So what should you draw? “Simple, repetitive, automatic doodles are best,” says Andrade. “A work of art would be way too absorbing.”


THE DILEMMA In 2004, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates claimed that “two years from now, spam will be solved.” But today, it still makes up 70 percent of the email we receive. Recently a group of spamalyzers at UC San Diego, and UC Berkeley, tried tackling this problem by taking the bait and buying what the spammers were hawking. After amassing a mountain of Levitra and counterfeit Rolexes, they were able to paint a full picture of the spam ecosystem. For one typical message, the domain registrar was in Russia, the server computer in China, and a proxy server in Brazil. When a purchase was made, shoppers were shuttled from a computer in Turkey to a bank in Azerbaijan, then received their shipment from a manufacturer in India. What was the weak link in the chain?

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION “If there was just one of these things you could shoot in the head, which would have the most impact?” asked Stefan Savage, a computer science and engineering professor at UC San Diego. Savage’s team found that 95 percent of the spam they received used just three banks—one in Azerbaijan, another in Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the third in Russia—to do their financial dirty work. Savage believes the most effective solution would be to convince U.S. banks to blacklist certain clients at these institutions. “We’d be demonetizing the industry,” says Savage, adding that they’re in talks with various companies to put their theory into action.

THE QUICK FIX In 2001, computer savant Vipul Ved Prakash created the world’s first community-based spam filter. Now called Cloudmark DesktopOne, it allows users to tag spam and keep it from reaching others. It ain’t perfect—spammers change email and domain names constantly. But today, 1.6 billion people use it, and it’s more effective than the filters used by Yahoo! and AOL.

7. Rain During Your Vacation

THE DILEMMA Your two-week trip to Cancun could have been amazing … if it hadn’t rained every day. Too bad weather channels don’t tell you the forecast six months out—in fact, they have a hard time telling you whether it’s going to rain tomorrow. The problem, say meteorologists, is that the models used to predict weather are cumbersome and involve infinite variables. If humidity, wind direction, or barometric pressure is off by 1 percent, the whole forecast falls apart.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION In the 1990s, meteorologist Bill Kirk was a captain in the U.S. Air Force trying to predict which dates would be best for flight training six months in advance. Fed up with traditional weather models and their flimsy grasp on the future, he developed his own algorithm: a combination of Gaussian mathematical theories, climate cycles, and statistical weather data spanning back 115 years—data that most meteorologists rarely touch. The result: a new way of forecasting that’s accurate up to a year in advance. These days, Kirk helps such clients as Walmart, Target, and Kohl’s plan inventory based on weather conditions. And his year-ahead weekly precipitation forecast is 76 percent accurate—better than the 71 percent accuracy of the Weather Channel’s one- to 10-day forecasts.

THE QUICK FIX In September 2010, Kirk launched the free website to help the rest of us schedule events when weather could be a make-or-break factor.

All images courtesy of iStock

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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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]