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That is All: John Hodgman's Transcendent Final Audiobook of Complete World Knowledge

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Today marks the beginning of the end of audiobooks. But don't cry -- there is still time to buy the last audiobook you will need before the coming global superpocalypse. You see, John Hodgman has released his final audiobook of complete world knowledge: That is All. It is full of jokes, celebrity cameos, mostly fake trivia, two references to Kale City Kale Chips, and fond recollections of Hodgman's now-burned speed zeppelin Hubris. Some of the narration occurs while Hodgman travels aboard the HMS Hodgmanic: the HMS stands for "Hodg Man's Ship," and under international law all vessels are rechristened Hodgmanic while he's aboard. That's just one of the little perks of being a Deranged Millionaire.

As I wrote in my review of Hodgman's That is All print edition (which you should probably read in order to understand the rest of this review), I prefer the audiobook editions of his work -- their production value is absurdly high, with more star voiceover cameos each time. But it's not really about the stars, or the jokes -- it's about the delivery of this performance among friends. Hodgman can narrate the hell out of an audiobook by himself. But when you add in appearances by Dick Cavett, Jon Hamm, Patton Oswalt (including an extended Oswalt-as-Nick-Nolte segment), Rachel Maddow, Paul Rudd, Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick, Sarah Vowell, Wyatt Cenac, and others -- you're getting your money's worth. If I had to pick a single audiobook to be stranded with on a desert island, That is All would be my choice -- with its tone veering from jokey to sweet, and ending on a beautiful high note, this audiobook is greater than its printed companion, because it is performed with friends. It is a rumination on collapse, where by "rumination" I mean "celebration," and by "collapse" I mean something that is much less an end than a beginning. For it is in these end times, these final days of 2012, that we may huddle close around our audiobook players, listen together, and have a laugh together. Just a quick tip before you start: you're going to want to get one of those waterproof covers for the player, because of the coming Blood Wave. I'm not sure what you're going to do about the Omega Pulse.

Gaslighting Paul Rudd

A theme of That is All in audiobook form is Hodgman's gleeful gaslighting of Paul Rudd. As we begin Hodgman's audiobook recording session, Rudd is in the next room narrating the same audiobook into an empty cereal box -- which he believes to be a form of microphone due to the aforementioned gaslighting. Hodgman, in his Deranged Millionaire character, repeatedly subjects Rudd's gullible Paul Rudd character (sorry, Paul) to hilarious psychological abuse. (The phrase "hilarious psychological abuse," at the time of this writing, turns up just one result on Google -- I am pleased to break that streak.) Hodgman returns to Rudd throughout the book, checking on his progress and slowly destroying Rudd's ability to distinguish reality from fiction. And it is awesome.

But don't be fooled by this. In the structure of That is All, the gaslighting of Paul Rudd is what magicians would call the Pledge -- the construction of a situation. It is fun on its own...but wait for the Turn and the Prestige to find the emotional core of this book. (And yes, I preemptively apologize for referring to The Prestige in the context of emotions.)

The Company Fridge

Something unexpected happened eleven months ago. I wrote a review of Hodgman's print edition of That is All, and eventually he noticed it. And his noticing was so sweet that we put it on the company fridge (yes, really). And then Hodgman appeared in our magazine, as our cover model, back in May. How cool is that? (Note: my most recent company fridge moment involved Neil Patrick Harris. Look, Neil. We all know you want more print work. You can even sing a song or something -- we'll just write it down. We have that technology.)

Writing About Talking and Singing

This is the part of the review where I play some clips from the audiobook. I don't have embeddable audio samples from the audiobook, and am probably prohibited by some sort of so-called "copyright law" from posting any. So instead, I guess you should watch a few videos from Hodgman's book tour, to get a flavor for what Hodgman is like live. The audiobook is like this except better, because Hodgman gets punchy in key spots (most notably the $999,999 Ideas segment) and frequently cracks up when joking with people he enjoys (c.f. the off-book material in the Rachel Maddow segment). Also, to be clear, the audiobook doesn't have these fancy moving pictures.

John Hodgman - THAT IS ALL from Adam Pranica on Vimeo.

But how does this translate into an audiobook? Is the audiobook just a stage-style reading of the book? In short, no. The portions of the book that can be read as prose are often read as such. But extended portions (like that whole wine thing, and the following section in which Hodgman lists and describes various wines) are performed as discussions with friends. TV host Rachel Maddow drops by the audiobook studio (sorry, Hodgman's Panic Suite at the Chateau Marmont) to discuss types of wine and perform a wine tasting, and she's terrific. This technique transforms the list-driven portions of Hodgman's book into discussions. And, let's face it, discussions are more fun to listen to than lists -- especially in the car.

All the Little Ragnaroks That Happen Day By Day

I finished listening to the audiobook of That is All on my walk to work yesterday morning. And, listening to an audiobook, I cried a little. On a downtown Portland street. This is not something that happens to me -- I don't cry over audiobooks, certainly not in public. But when Hodgman concluded the book, after reading a powerful segment of the book that hints at his writing future, he sang a song with Cynthia Hopkins. And that song -- listen, that song is worth the price of admission. I was not prepared for it, and I am glad it happened, even though a hobo gave me a creepy look because of it.

Without giving too much away, you should know that That is All makes its crucial Turn when Hodgman stops writing as a familiar character, and begins writing as what we might guess is "himself," whatever that means for a writer who is so aware of his changing status and thus his changing voice. Taking on a new voice, one that is so unselfconscious, is surely a vulnerable place to be after so many years occupying jokey versions of himself -- we've heard Hodgman as a Former Professional Literary Agent, Resident Expert, Famous Minor Television Celebrity, and finally Deranged Millionaire (if you aren't familiar with these, read your history). Now we are hearing from the post-post Hodgman -- in other words, beyond the narrator-in-character writer there is a Hodgman voice we've been waiting to hear from again (I remember this voice from before his first book), and boy does it hit home. The book's brilliant conclusion, telling the story of the metafictional Anne Darling Egan, serves as a transition not just in the book, but in Hodgman's career -- it suggests what Hodgman will do next, after the end of this series of postmodern characters. I have no inside information, but listening to the long segment preceding the closing song, I couldn't help but think -- Hodgman has a novel in him.

What I conclude from That is All is that Hodgman's Deranged Millionaire character was gaslighting us the entire time. The truth, of course, is that Hodgman himself is a genuinely kind person who uses character as a way to express himself with a kind of wry, safe detachment. His recent Derangement is a fun side-note in the arc of his career, but careers aren't what matter. What matters is that we do what we love, that we are with the people we love, and that we do our work surrounded by friends -- that is what Hodgman has been doing by bringing in Paul Rudd and Jonathan Coulton and running gags that span dozens of hours of audio and years of work -- he's demonstrating to us what is most meaningful isn't the jokes, it's that those jokes are shared.

Hodgman's final audiobook of complete world knowledge ends with a surging, crying-in-the-street duet of "Resist the Tide" with Hopkins, just as his public readings have for years, and we are reminded that there is more to audiobooks than speech -- there is song; there is more to jokey books than jokes -- there is the sincerity of sharing; and there is more to the end than sadness -- there is hope. That is all.

Resist the Tide

Here at the end, let's look back at the beginning of that end -- from 11/1/11, when Hodgman and Hopkins performed "Resist the Tide" together at The Bell House, at the beginning of his That is All book tour. Smile about your mortality, and sing along, and know that it's okay to cry a little. I sure did.

Buying the Audiobook

The audiobook of That is All is not available on physical media -- it's digital only. It's about sixteen hours long including bonus features (like the audio-page-a-day calendar version of "Today in Ragnarok"), though the core book material is closer to eleven hours. Pick it up on iTunes, Amazon/Audible, or wherever fine audiobooks are sold digitally. You might also want to check out Hodgman's new boxed set of complete world knowledge if you like reading words rather than listening to them.

Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated for this review. I received an early version of the audiobook to listen to in my Portland End Times Bungalow.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.