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Why Do I Feel My Phone Vibrate Even When No One's Calling or Texting?

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A few months ago, I decided to give up on text message alerts. Not because I wasn’t interested in replying, but because I couldn’t handle having my phone vibrate at random. I had started experiencing “phantom vibrations,” the false sensation that your phone is vibrating. Unwilling to deal with constant pinging ringtones, and filled with disappointment and embarrassment every time I reached into my pocket to find that my brain had invented the sensation of a vibrating alert, I opted to merely mute everything.

It worked. I no longer feel that phantom phone itch in my leg or where the bottom of my purse brushes against my body. (As it turns out, very few texts are actually urgent.)

I’m not the only person who hallucinates that someone is trying to communicate with me. Psychologist David Laramie dubbed the feeling “ringxiety” in his 2007 dissertation on mobile phone use and behavior, but it wasn’t invented with the cell phone. In 1996, ”phantom-pager syndrome” made an appearance in a Dilbert strip. The phenomenon has since been studied across age ranges, professions, and cultures.

A 2012 study of 290 Indiana undergraduates found that 89 percent had experienced some degree of phantom phone vibration, averaging about once every two weeks. Nor is it limited to phone-obsessed college kids. A study of hospital staffers, who are frequently tethered to pagers and phones at work, found that 68 percent of the 176 workers surveyed experienced phantom vibrations.

It’s not just vibrations, either. Laramie’s 2007 study of 320 adults found evidence for aural hallucinations, too—two-thirds of the participants actually thought they heard their phone ringing.

But why people feel vibrations where there are none is still up for debate. In the 2010 hospital worker study, the Massachusetts-based researchers hypothesized that the phantom signals “may result from a misinterpretation of incoming sensory signals by the cerebral cortex.” They continue:

In order to deal with the overwhelming amount of sensory input, the brain applies filters or schema based on what it expects to find, a process known as hypothesis guided search. In the case of phantom vibrations, because the brain is anticipating a call, it misinterprets sensory input according to this preconceived hypothesis. The actual stimulus is unknown, but candidate sensations might include pressure from clothing, muscle contractions, or other sensory stimuli.

Recently, a University of Michigan phone study posited that ringxiety is linked to insecurity. The 2016 study found that people with attachment anxiety (who are insecure in personal relationships) were more likely to experience frequent phantom vibrations. This seems to make sense: If you’re insecure in your romantic relationship, you’re probably more likely to obsess about whether or not your partner is texting you. Expecting a message or call, or being particularly concerned about something that you might be contacted about, was further associated with phantom alerts.

However, most studies have found that only a tiny fraction of people are seriously bothered by the phantom signals—typically around 2 percent of the populations examined [PDF]. In the Indiana study, “few [participants] found them bothersome,” the researchers noted. The hospital workers studied didn’t, either. Many reported phantom-vibration sufferers didn’t try to do anything about it. Others successfully rid themselves of the sensation: Of the 115 hospital workers who experienced phantom vibrations, 43 attempted to stop it by taking their device off vibrate or carrying it in a different place, with 75 percent and 63 percent success rates, respectively.

The best way to rid yourself of phantom vibrations, it seems, is to be a super secure person with no social anxieties. Or, you could just try moving your phone to a different pocket. 

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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