A Scary Snuff Box

What’s your personality like? Long before BuzzFeed or the Myers-Briggs personality test, there was phrenology—a pseudoscience that used the lumps and bumps of human skulls to tease out the secrets of human psychology.

This skeleton-bedecked snuff box looks creepy, but it served as a handy reference for its 19th-century owner. Part of the collection of the Science Museum, London, it shows three views of a numbered skull on the lid and has a handy-dandy key on the bottom of the box.

The concept behind phrenology makes a certain kind of sense: Since the brain holds the mind, different faculties of the mind must live in certain parts of the brain, or so phrenology’s followers believed. And while that’s not totally off base, they also believed that one could “read” the elevations and depressions of the skull for clues about the capabilities and “faculties” of the brain within.

That’s demonstrated on this snuff box, which shows three views of a skull studded with numbers. Each number on the skull corresponds to an “organ” responsible for a personality trait. Number 18, for example, indicated vanity, so someone with a large or protruding area at that part of the skull would presumably be vain.

There are 27 “faculties” or “organs” overall, each divvied up and named by Franz Joseph Gall, the German physiologist who invented phrenology. The sections cover the entire gamut of human emotion and behavior, from haughtiness and arrogance to poetic talent.

Phrenology may have long since been dismissed as a pseudoscience, but it sure left some creepy memorabilia behind. Take the box in question: Made in France at some point between 1800 and 1830, it also jumped on another trend—sniffing snuff, or fine-ground tobacco. The practice was all the rage in Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries, and spawned not only elaborate snuff-taking rituals but a collecting craze. Today, snuff boxes made of everything from silver to papier-mâché are still prized collector’s items.

Though snuff has fallen out of favor, it’s not dead: You can still buy it in some places, and in the British House of Commons, where smoking is banned, some MPs still take a snort of snuff from the Parliament’s communal box before legislating. Their box isn’t as creepy-cool, though … merely plated with pure silver. (There are snuff boxes in the U.S. Senate, too, but though they’re filled with snuff they’re not used by any Senators today.)

[h/t Lindsey Fitzharris]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]