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Why Computer Scientists Are Studying Tom Hanks's Face

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Computer scientists at the University of Washington are trying to figure out just what makes Tom Hanks look like Tom Hanks. Using the thousands of photos taken of the actor over the course of his lengthy career, they’ve mapped out his face, and created a digital replica that can mimic his expressions. It’s all part of a larger project to create highly accurate 3D simulations of human faces.

Hanks makes an especially great subject because there are so many pictures of him out there—and because his facial expressions are so distinct (as The Atlantic notes, he's got an "essential Tom Hanksiness").

In their recently published paper, appropriately titled “What Makes Tom Hanks Look Like Tom Hanks” [PDF], the University of Washington scientists wrote, “Tom Hanks has appeared in many acting roles over the years. He’s played young and old, smart and simple, characters with a wide variety of temperaments and personalities. Yet, we always recognize him as Tom Hanks. Why? Is it his shape? His appearance? The way he moves?”

It’s a surprisingly existential question for a group of computer scientists to ask, but its answer may hold the key to some pretty significant advances in virtual reality and filmmaking. Already, computer scientists have developed an algorithm that charts changes in facial expression using 49 pre-defined points on a person’s face. Using photographs of Tom Hanks and other celebrities, they’ve built realistic facial simulations, whose movements eerily mimic those of their real-life counterparts.

The Atlantic explains that once the technology is more advanced, it will it make it easier to portray real people’s faces in virtual reality and movies. Most older forms of facial mapping have involved the laborious and complex process of photographing a subject from all angles in a highly controlled setting. By contrast, the new process doesn't even require the person you're simulating to be present—all you need is a few good photos.

“In the optimal setup, you’d say, ‘Let’s go to a lab, put 20 cameras around the room, decide on some lighting, and constrain all sorts of environmental conditions,” Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, one of the researchers on the study, told The Atlantic. “The big breakthrough in our research is we’re doing it in completely unconstrained environments unlike other research in this space.”

Check out examples of the researchers' strange and fascinating digital ventriloquism below:

[h/t: The Atlantic]

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A Step-by-Step Journey Through Your Body's Digestive System
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We at Mental Floss write a lot about poop, but not as often about how our bodies produce the stuff in the first place. Humans eat between two and six pounds of food per day—and as TED-Ed’s latest video explains, this grub passes through an elaborate network of channels, organs, tissues, and nerves that’s commonly known as the human digestive system.

The digestive system is the unsung hero of our torso. Its 10 organs—which include the esophagus, liver, intestines, and stomach—contain over 20 specialized cell types, and the gastrointestinal track alone has an internal surface area of between 320 and 430 square feet. But the digestive process doesn’t begin and end with the esophagus—it starts in our mouths.

The body produces just over six cups of saliva per day, a process that begins when we start salivating over a tasty morsel. This clear substance contains starch-busting enzymes, which break the food we eat into a moist lump (a bolus) that will eventually become the stuff that comes out our other ends. In all, this journey lasts between 30 and 40 hours—and you can follow it step by step by watching TED-Ed’s video below.

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Today's Wine Glasses Are Almost Seven Times Larger Than They Were in 1700
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Holiday party season (a.k.a. hangover season) is in full swing. While you likely have no one to blame but yourself for drinking that second (or third) pour at the office soiree, your glassware isn't doing you any favors—especially if you live in the UK. Vino vessels in England are nearly seven times larger today than they were in 1700, according to a new study spotted by Live Science. These findings were recently published in the English medical journal The BMJ.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge measured more than 400 wineglasses from the past three centuries to gauge whether glass size affects how much we drink. They dug deep into the history of parties past, perusing both the collections of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the Royal Household's assemblage of glassware (a new set is commissioned for each monarch). They also scoured a vintage catalog, a modern department store, and eBay for examples.

After measuring these cups, researchers concluded that the average wineglass in 1700 held just 2.2 fluid ounces. For comparison's sake, that's the size of a double shot at a bar. Glasses today hold an average of 15.2 fluid ounces, even though a standard single serving size of wine is just 5 ounces.

BMJ infographic detailing increases in wine glass size from 1700 to 2017
BMJ Publishing group Ltd.

Advances in technology and manufacturing are partly to blame for this increase, as is the wine industry. Marketing campaigns promoted the beverage as it increasingly became more affordable and available for purchase, which in turn prompted aficionados to opt for larger pours. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bigger-is-better mindset was also compounded by American drinking habits: Extra-large wineglasses became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, prompting overseas manufacturers to follow suit.

Wine consumption in both England and America has risen dramatically since the 1960s [PDF]. Cambridge researchers noted that their study doesn't necessarily prove that the rise of super-sized glassware has led to this increase. But their findings do fit a larger trend: previous studies have found that larger plate size can increase food consumption. This might be because they skew our sense of perception, making us think we're consuming less than we actually are. And in the case of wine, in particular, oversized glasses could also heighten our sensory enjoyment, as they might release more of the drink's aroma.

“We cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked,” the study's authors wrote. “Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking. Our observation of increasing size does, however, draw attention to wine glass size as an area to investigate further in the context of population health.”

[h/t Live Science]

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