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The (Real) Ghost-Hunting History of the Aykroyds

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Samuel Augustus Aykroyd, a teacher-turned-dentist who kept a farmhouse near Sydenham, Ontario, liked to host séances. He liked them so much, in fact, that he invited a medium named Walter Ashurst to be his houseguest in 1921. Ashurst didn't leave for 12 years.

Joined by a close-knit group of friends who shared an interest in the paranormal, the Aykroyds held regular attempts to communicate with the dead—an assembly of enjoined hands around a table in the parlor room where Ashurst would appear to pass along messages from beyond. Aykroyd’s 7-year-old grandson, Peter, would watch from a doorway or a staircase as Ashurst's voice took on different inflections, his tongue overtaken by otherworldly entities.

Peter would grow to have children of his own, Peter Jr. and Dan, with tales of Samuel Aykroyd’s academic experiments into the paranormal being passed around the dining room table. Copies of the American Society for Psychical Research journals found their way into Dan’s hands as a teenager. He would later have the idea to write a movie about paranormal investigators who treat the existence of ghosts as a scientific dilemma.

Ghostbusters, which grossed over a quarter-billion dollars in theaters following its release in 1984, was a direct extension of an Aykroyd family tradition: hunting ghosts.

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Samuel Aykroyd was born in Ontario in 1855, the oldest of 14 children. It took him until his early thirties to realize his first line of work—teaching—wasn’t for him. He entered dental school and opened a practice in 1894, doing his best to accommodate anxious patients in a time when topical anesthetic consisted mainly of taking a stiff drink.

Though he wasn’t a practitioner, Samuel had come across mention of dentists who had tried using hypnosis to soothe anxiety and promote a relaxed state for treatment. His grandson, Peter Aykroyd—who researched Samuel’s life for a 2009 book, A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters, believes Samuel soon began to take an interest in the idea that some individuals can be induced into a trance that allows them to act as a conduit between the living and the dead.

He wasn't without company. Samuel met Ashurst, a machine operator, in 1917; the two shared a fascination for spirit communications, and Ashurst told Samuel he believed he could act as a proper medium for the séances Samuel intended to conduct on his farm property in Ontario. By 1921, Ashurst was a medium-in-residence, and Samuel was hosting near-weekly gatherings in an attempt to tune into what he perceived to be the intangible frequency of the afterlife.

According to the journals left by Samuel that detailed his exploration of spiritualism from 1905 to 1933, Ashurst was able to draw the attention of a former member of the Ming Dynasty, a prince of ancient Egypt, and even Samuel’s great-grandfather. In one séance conducted in the home of Samuel’s son, Maurice Aykroyd, a trumpet-like instrument used to correspond with the dead was said to have floated above the heads of the attendees.

Samuel kept notes, and in them he indicated a degree of dissatisfaction with the activities. What he really wanted to do was provoke a materialization, or physical embodiment of a spirit. The séances were held on a schedule and with the same friends in an attempt to make the ethereal more comfortable with showing themselves. Through Ashurst, the spirits would promise they were working on it and ask for patience.

One of Samuel’s bigger preoccupations was with ectoplasm, a seeming manifestation of a ghostly apparition that had been mentioned in spiritual writing but was impossible to document: the gooey material took form only fleetingly, was visible mostly in the dark, and had no physical properties. Again, the spirits suggested the residue of their presence would arrive in short order.

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Perhaps the spirits didn’t keep time on a mortal’s schedule. Samuel Aykroyd passed away in 1933, with his séance group slowly dissolving over the next decade. Samuel’s son, Maurice, a Bell Telephone engineer, was convinced spirits might be reachable through a radio frequency device and tried to fabricate one. He was unsuccessful.

These stories and others like them made their way down the Aykroyd family tree, with Maurice’s son, Peter, inheriting his grandfather’s journals and a considerable library of spiritual literature. Peter’s son, Dan, was intrigued by his great-grandfather’s pragmatic approach to such phenomena; deep trances and ectoplasm both make appearances in Ghostbusters, the film he conceived of, then co-wrote with Harold Ramis.

Upon being shown the script, Peter was enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing his family’s roots in paranormal research being honored. Reflecting on the recurring themes in his family tree in 2014, Dan summarized his inherited passion for the paranormal: “It’s the family business, for God’s sake.”

Additional Sources: A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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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.

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