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In Some Rare Instances, Brain Damage Can Lead to Joke Addiction

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It’s generally a good thing to have a sense of humor. But for some people, joking can become a compulsion.

In two case studies by a pair of UCLA brain researchers recently published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, the subjects' brain trauma and dementia led to what the scientists describe as “intractable joking.” Called Witzelsucht (German for "joke addiction"), excessive joking is a real neurological disease. Coming up with puns is pathological.

For five years, one man, an anonymous 69-year-old, would wake his wife up in the middle of the night to tell her jokes he’d come up with. When she complained, he wrote them down instead—accumulating 50 pages of puns and poop jokes that he later revealed to the researchers.

Ten years before he visited the lab, this man suffered a brain hemorrhage that changed his behavior. He became compulsive, particularly about recycling. He would dig through dumpsters to try to find recyclables, and hoard napkins from restaurants. Five years after the episode, his compulsion turned toward comedy. In what was later attributed to a stroke, he became so obsessed with making jokes and puns that it began to wear on his relationship with his wife. He laughed incessantly at his own jokes, yet he struggled to find other people’s jokes funny. On a multiple choice test in the lab, he could identify the punch lines of jokes, but didn’t laugh or find them funny. But his own quips—like “How do you cure hunger? Step away from the buffet table!”—he couldn’t stop giggling at.

In the second case studied, a 57-year-old with dementia got fired from his job for his inability to quash his jokester persona. He was let go after he blurted “Who the hell chose this God-awful place?” at work. He “would frequently break out in laughter, almost cackling, at his own comments, opinions, or jokes, many of which were borderline sexual or political in content,” the researchers describe. He disco-danced during one visit to the clinic to meet with the researchers, grabbing the ties of passing physicians and comparing them on another visit. Like the aforementioned pun-lover, though, he didn’t find other people’s jesting amusing. His sense of humor was entirely personal. When he died, the man’s autopsy showed that he had Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, that resulted in severe atrophy of the frontal lobes of his brain.

These men did not die of laughter, and it sounds like their friends and family were excessively patient with them. Still, joke addiction is serious business. Figuring out the brain issues that lead to this compulsive jesting and merriment can help us understand how the brain processes humor—a particularly human behavior psychologists and other researchers still don’t entirely understand. Both the cases above represented patients with frontal lesions from brain trauma and neurodegenerative disease. The frontal regions of the brain, especially on the right side of the brain, seem to play a major role in our ability to see the humor in the world, and get other people’s jokes. People with lesions on the right frontal lobe of their brain still respond to silly puns and slapstick, but can’t appreciate more complicated jokes or those that are new to them (as in, told by someone else). And with the damage to the parts of the brain involved in self-control, these people lose the ability to stop themselves from making that terrible pun.

Next, perhaps researchers will discover the neurological root of Dad Jokes.

[h/t BBC]

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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