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6 Rules for Touching Humans, Based on Science

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Hugs, handshakes, butt pats: Touching among humans is, well, a touchy subject. As kids we were taught that there’s good and bad touches—and it only got more complicated from there. Nobody is immune to the vagaries and complications, either: How politicians touch—from former President George W. Bush's famous Merkel-shoulder-rub gaffe to Michelle Obama's half-embrace of the Queen—is often controversial, and there's seemingly never-ending debate in business circles about hugging vs. handshaking (and let's not even get into single- vs. double-cheek kissing). At the same time, touching is essential to human bonding, stimulating oxytocin and endorphins.

Perhaps science can sort this out? Here are some rules on the subject from research.


For a long time, it was believed that touch was the “simple sense”: that the brain, and specifically the somatosensory cortex, interpreted basic information like temperature and pressure as received by the skin—and that’s it. One 2012 study of heterosexual males showed that the brain processes touch using more cues than just physical sensation. In the study, the subjects received a "sensual caress" from an unseen hand while watching a video clip of either a woman or a man who appeared to be delivering the well-timed touch. In reality, every stroke was delivered by a woman's hand. Looking at fMRIs of the men's brain activity, researchers saw that their somatosensory cortex responded more significantly to what they believed was the woman’s touch than to the man’s. So that “simple” part of the brain wasn’t just interpreting physical cues, but was also accounting for cultural and emotional information. As far as the brain was concerned, those aspects of touch were inseparable from physical stimulation. 


A study published recently in PNAS determined that it’s the closeness of the relationship, rather than frequency of seeing a person, that determined how acceptable intimate touch was—which surprised researchers, until they realized why. Lead author Robin Dunbar, of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford, tells mental_floss that the results make sense when you consider that “what is important in a relationship is how you feel about the person. The frequency of contact is simply the vehicle to achieve that, not the thing itself,” he says.


In a 2006 study [PDF] that involved participants in the United States and Spain, random pairs of strangers were separated, with just a black curtain between them. One was given the task of communicating an emotion by touching the other person’s hand or arm. Researchers found that the people being touched “could decode anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, and sympathy via touch at much-better-than-chance levels." Another study by the same researchers found that people could accurately decode distinct emotions by merely watching others communicate by touching each other. In short, touch gave just as much information as tone of voice or facial expression.


Naturally, this is not permission for anyone to touch women more (I’m talking to you, creepy subway guy and inappropriate co-worker), but according to Dunbar’s PNAS study (see #2), women are—in general—both more comfortable being touched and more likely to touch others. This touchiness appears to cement deeper connections: "participants reported feeling stronger emotional bonds with female than male members of their social networks," according to the study.  


The same study also found that the rules of touch don’t vary as much as we think. While his study only looked at European countries, the expected differences between, for example, Finns and Italians—traditionally thought to be on either side of a great European touch divide, with northern cultures hands-off and Mediterranean cultures hands-on—was smaller than anticipated, suggesting the basics of touch are less of a cultural artifact than we might assume. 


Touching others is just fundamentally confusing: “…we are always caught between two things—that we express closeness by more touch and that we try to use touch to express more closeness (when it doesn't exist but we would like it to). So it is always a bit risky, and that is why people get into trouble,” Dunbar tells mental_floss. His best advice for reaching out? “Be careful! Read the signals first!” Perhaps we should update the old school rule: Until you know what's acceptable, keep your hands to yourself. 

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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]