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A.J. Jacobs

A Family Tree of the Entire Human Race

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A.J. Jacobs

Some of my relatives are pretty impressive. There’s my cousin Albert, who was an expert on gravity and untamed hairstyles. There’s Gwyneth, another cousin and a fine actress, even if she did popularize the unfortunate phrase “conscious uncoupling.” And of course there are also some black sheep, like my cousin Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer. But let’s not dwell on him.

If it sounds as if I’m boasting, well, I’m not. As it turns out, you have these very same relatives. (Yes, you.) In fact, you may be on my family tree already. And if you’re not, I am going to do my darnedest to include you.

I’m one of thousands of researchers tackling the biggest challenge in the history of ancestry: We are building a family tree of the entire human race. All seven billion members.

It’s an incredibly ambitious project, requiring countless hours online, billions of obscure records, and unprecedented numbers of DNA tests. And frankly, we’ve got a long way to go. But at least we’ve made a dent: Currently, the world family tree includes some 77 million people in all seven continents (including Antarctica). That’s 77 million people on a single tree, all connected by blood or marriage or (sometimes) both. Which makes for the longest branches in human history. Paltrow is 17 steps from me. Einstein is 21. President Obama is my aunt’s fifth great-aunt’s husband’s father’s wife’s seventh great-nephew. Practically my older brother!

Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to conceive of this megatree. Back then, in order to build your tree, you had to schlep to, say, a Cleveland courthouse or write oft-ignored letters to distant relatives. Then along came the Internet and the Wikipedia model. Several sites—including WikiTree and Geni (which is owned by MyHeritage)—have revolutionized the field with a collaborative, crowdsourced approach to family-tree planting.

So how does it work, exactly? You start small with a family sampling, entering the details you know. If the “A.J. Jacobs” on your tree matches the “A.J. Jacobs” on somebody else’s tree, then you are given the option to combine them. With a click, your tree can double. Repeat this a few times and you will eventually be linked to a worldwide family tree. (Geni’s Big Tree is 77 million, and WikiTree’s is 7 million).

“It’s much easier to collaborate instead of working on your own,” says Gilad Japhet, the CEO of MyHeritage and Geni. “Imagine a million people solving a single multibillion-piece jigsaw puzzle instead of everyone solving their own separate puzzles. In a decade or less, I believe we’ll have a single tree that will include most of the people living on earth.”

Before we get there, we’ve got obstacles to overcome. One big challenge is accuracy. If you’ve got thousands of collaborators, what’s to stop one from changing the tree so that Jimi Hendrix is the son of Chester A. Arthur? Luckily, a core of volunteer experts (they call themselves forest rangers) is trying to verify the connections and make sure they’re well-documented. But this remains an area of dispute, especially the further you go back. (Some branches claim to go back to Biblical times, which requires more leaps of faith than I’m willing to make.)

There’s also the privacy issue. Some traditional genealogists don’t like that family names are out in the open. Instances of sabotage have even occurred, where profiles are deleted and branches cut. Geni and WikiTree do obscure the names of living persons, but privacy continues to be a flash point for modern genealogists.

Some skeptics have asked why we should care about identifying all these branches of our family trees. “This sounds like a nightmare,” one friend told me. “I have enough trouble with the relatives I have already. I don’t want millions more.”

I understand his point, but here’s why I think the mega-tree will be world-changing, assuming we can pull it off. First: the scientific value. A team of MIT scientists is studying the Geni world family tree to see how populations migrate and how diseases are passed down, which will help pinpoint genes and cures. In fact, it’s already yielding insights into the heritability of longevity. Second, and I know this sounds idealistic, but my collaborators and I believe it might make the world a kinder place. Yes, families don’t always get along (I have three sons, and I’ve seen how they wrestle). But overall, humans are biased to treat family members with more consideration.

I’ve witnessed this while making my own tree. To take an admittedly trivial example, I’d always considered tennis player John McEnroe an obnoxious, overgrown brat. But when I figured out how I was related to him, my perception shifted. Maybe he’s not so bad! It’s probably just a shtick.

By revealing how the cliché of “We’re all one big family” is true, we hope to provide bad news to bigots, who will have to face the important fact that they are closely related to whatever ethnic group they despise. The Aryan Nations might not be ready to group hug the NAACP, but perhaps this project will bring them a tad more empathy.

I also think it will be democratizing. Some ancestral research can have an elitist tinge, as in “I’m descended from Mary, Queen of Scots, and you’re not, so you can’t join my golf club.” Now, we can see how everyone is linked to royalty, even those, like me, whose great-grandfathers grew up in a Ukrainian shtetl.

For my kids, this is an astoundingly fun way to learn about history. When they realized they were related to John Adams (just 27 links!), he was not just a dead white guy. He was (dead) Uncle John, and they wanted to know what he did as president.

We have another powerful tool besides the Internet to help us build the world family tree: DNA testing. There are now several consumer genetic services, such as 23andMe and FamilyTree DNA. You buy a kit, spit in a tube, send it off, and a few weeks later you receive a list of hundreds of fellow spitters who share enough DNA to qualify as cousins: information that can be integrated into the Big Tree.

I found some interesting new cousins through 23andMe, including ... my wife, who was listed as a “distant cousin.” She didn’t like the “cousin” part but was relieved by the adjective “distant.”

It shouldn’t be surprising, though. Geneticists say that we are all descended from the same male and female. Their nicknames are Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosome Adam, and they lived 100,000 to 300,000 years ago. We all have a bit of their DNA. They are our great-great-great- (just keep repeating that about 5000 times) grandparents.

Some geneticists say our most recent common ancestor is far more contemporary than that. MIT computer scientist David Rohde argued in the journal Nature that a shared ancestor for all humans lived about 5000 years ago, thanks in part to increasing intermarriage. Which means that the vast majority of humans are probably, at most, 100th cousins by blood.

When I discovered I had 77 million relatives, I asked myself: What can I do with this information?

Attend the Global Family Reunion!

And that’s when I decided to undertake another challenge: throwing a colossal party. I’m organizing the Global Family Reunion, which will be, I hope, the biggest and most remarkable family reunion in history. I’ve already chosen the date and venue: June 6, 2015, on the grounds of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. You are invited. In fact, every member of the human family is invited. Those with a proven connection to me will get a special bracelet and be part of the recordbreaking family photo.

The current Guinness record for a family reunion is 4515, held by the Porteau-Boileve family from France. They took the title away from the Lilly family of West Virginia, whose 2005 reunion had 2514 people.

Frankly, I’m overwhelmed. This is a massive task with plenty of pitfalls. Arranging to have Sister Sledge sing “We Are Family” is just one of the organizational hurdles I must leap. And what if the reunion sets off an epic family feud? (I can trace a link to both Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, so if, by some small chance, I can get them both there ...). How can I get enough people to come? When I email distant cousins, I sometimes get replies like “Is this some sort of Nigerian scam?” Also, where should I draw the line? One cousin wrote me that bananas share 50 percent of their DNA with humans, so you could argue bananas are cousins. To which I say, yes, bring bananas to the reunion!

Luckily, I’ve also gotten huge support. I’m working with WikiTree and Geni, who have both introduced tools that allow you to figure out your connection.

And I’ve been traveling the country recruiting cousins and drumming up support as well. I recently flew to Houston to tell President George H.W. Bush that he was my cousin by 18 steps—and that he’s also linked to Bill Clinton by 12 steps. The latter made him happy. “We’ve always thought of President Clinton as a son from another mother,” Mrs. Bush told me. Those are just the sort of connections I’m looking to make, so if you’re free in June 2015, I hope you’ll join me in overcoming this challenge. You kind of have to. You’re family.

If you want to figure out how you're related to everyone on earth, go to

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.