Giant-panda cubs at play!
Mariella Satow shows off her pandemic project: an app that offers on-screen sign language for movies.

Some people baked bread during the pandemic. Some honed their gaming skills. Some even read. Air Mail Pilot practiced not moping. And then there’s 17-year-old Mariella Satow. She has spent the pandemic not only learning American Sign Language (A.S.L.) but also creating an app that provides on-screen signing for movies on Disney+.

That’s a big deal for deaf kids (and adults, too) who can’t read or who have other issues with traditional captions, or who maybe just prefer signing. Mariella’s app, a free Chrome extension called SignUp, launched a month ago and quickly amassed more than a thousand users. “It’s definitely surreal,” she told her local paper, the Sag Harbor Express. “I thought maybe only a dozen people would use it…. It’s just blown up in ways I didn’t think it would.”

Mariella, who is not deaf, holds dual U.S. and British citizenship. She’s a student at the Rugby School in England (where—guess what?—the game of rugby was invented) but has been spending the pandemic on Long Island, taking classes remotely.

She got the idea for SignUp when she wanted to supplement her A.S.L. lessons the way she had done with Spanish—watching English-language shows with Spanish subtitles. Surprised and annoyed that there was no signing equivalent, she was determined to make her own.

Did we mention the apparently very disciplined Mariella also works as a dog walker? With $3,000 she’d saved, she hired an Indian company to help with coding. Money from a GoFundMe she launched helped pay for interpreters, who appear on screen in a pop-up box similar to what you often see during televised news conferences.

SignUp lets children hard of hearing enjoy movies like Moana.

When she began researching her idea, Mariella discovered that there was a need beyond just A.S.L. students. “Deaf children are often overlooked by big media and if they cannot read, they cannot access subtitles,” she told The Times of London. “Parents told me they had to sit next to their children and sign entire films for them.”

Disney+, then, was an obvious platform for Mariella to start with. SignUp now includes A.S.L. interpretation for Moana, Frozen, Zootopia, Luca, and The Incredibles (Mariella’s personal favorite). Inside Out and The Little Mermaid are in the works.

Meanwhile, Mariella has been in talks with Netflix and PBS Kids about expanding the app’s reach—not just in terms of more movies and shows, but also more languages. “There are more than 300 sign languages in use worldwide, so SignUp has enormous potential,” she explained. She’s currently working on a British Sign Language version—that is, when she’s not studying for her big A-level exams and filling out her college applications.

If Mariella ever goofs off, Air Mail Pilot would like to know. But let’s close with a tribute to SignUp from a father in Kentucky: “My son was born deaf and captions did nothing for him. He is only 8, so often captions are way too fast. SignUp provides full access to movies he loves and now he loves them even more. We are so thrilled.” —Bruce Handy

Zebra finches contemplate their next song.

A group of researchers at the University of California (U.C.) San Diego can now add mind reading to their resumes. The researchers recently revealed that they can predict the songs finches will sing—before they even open their beaks.

How do scientists do it? Well, they don’t actually use their minds—they use silicone electrodes. In a laboratory, the scientists inserted probes into zebra finches’ brains. When a male zebra finch busts out a tune, he uses between one and seven repetitions of a riff, each composed of 3 to 10 different syllables. By looking at these brain signals, scientists were able to tell which note the bird would sing next.

The brain signal is technically called “local field potential,” and the electrodes track which large bunches of brain cells are activated when a bird chirps. The researchers identified patterns to predict which notes would next emerge from the finch. “This network activity can be used to predict both the identity of each vocal element—or syllable—and when it will occur during song,” the researchers explained.

The “local field activity” is like an instruction manual for the vocal cords; the bird’s voice follows its lead. It’s as close to mind reading as scientists can get.

By tracking brain signals, scientists can predict which notes finches will hit.

This isn’t the first time scientists have tracked neurons to predict what animals will do. Researchers previously looked at monkeys’ neurons, which let them predict their hand movements 140 milliseconds in advance. That might not sound like a long time, but for a scientist stuck in a lab with a monkey, every millisecond counts.

According to a study published in the PLOS Computational Biology journal, these neurons can help predict human behavior, too. Local field potential “has been used to study and decode human speech and other complex motor behaviors,” the study explains.

This is exactly what the zebra finch research hopes to help with. “We’re studying birdsong in a way that will help us get one step closer to engineering a brain machine interface for vocalization and communication,” Daril Brown, the lead author of the U.C. San Diego study, told The Times.

Scientists have already developed some prosthetic limbs that move by reading brain signals, and this research could aid in advancing those prosthetics. Predicting bird songs today might mean creating exceptional artificial hands tomorrow. —Elena Clavarino

A recent U.K. stamp competition honored brave doctors who worked during the pandemic.

Recently, children in the United Kingdom shattered the nation’s record for the number of submissions made to a stamp design competition. Who knew anybody was keeping track?

U.K. kids between the ages of 4 and 14 were asked to design postage stamps in honor of coronavirus pandemic heroes. Over 600,000 designs were submitted from across nearly 7,500 schools. This made the previous record—239,374 entries for the 2013 Royal Mail’s Christmas stamp design competition—look like small potatoes.

Of the entries, 120 finalists have been selected. In November, a panel of judges will select 24 regional finalists, from which eight winning designs will be selected. The lucky winners will get their designs printed as official Royal Mail stamps.

The submissions—illustrated with markers, paint, colored pencils, and crayons—depict members from all areas of society. Parents and teachers were common subjects, as were supermarket employees, public transportation workers, delivery drivers, and postal workers. Of course, doctors and nurses were featured in many designs.

Just one of the 606,049 stamp designs submitted to the Royal Mail’s competition.

Also common were community members who volunteered or raised money, including notable figures like Captain Sir Tom Moore, a retired army officer whose 100th Birthday Walk for the National Health Service raised millions of dollars.

Boris Johnson, the nation’s Prime Minister, was chuffed with the children. “Their brilliant efforts represent the collective gratitude of the nation to everyone who went above and beyond during the pandemic,” he said.

The Royal Mail chief executive, Simon Thompson, also thanked the participants. “We have been amazed and impressed by the sheer volume of entries,” he said. “The process shows how much the UK’s children value those heroes who have kept the nation moving during such a difficult period.”

Let’s hope the next time the children of the U.K. break this record, it isn’t because of a pandemic. —Alex Oliveira