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How mental_floss Helped Erik Dresner Win $22,401 on Jeopardy!

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This morning, I got a great email from mental_floss reader (and friend of a friend) Erik Dresner about his experience on Jeopardy! that I had to share. Hope you enjoy it—and his awesome celebratory tattoo—as much as we did!

Hi Erin,

So here's my story:

Back in June, I got the call to appear on Jeopardy!, something I've been trying to do for 10 years. I spent the next six weeks studying Shakespeare, state capitals, world capitals, the presidents and the periodic table. One day before flying out to LA, the new issue of mental_floss, with a whipped creamed mustachioed Alton Brown and a tiny yellow eel on the cover, arrived in my mailbox. Also arriving was my other magazine subscription: Entertainment Weekly.

I brought the magazines for in-flight entertainment during the take off and landing procedures that put an embargo on electronic devices. My plan was to read EW on the way there and mental_floss on the flight back, but halfway through EW, I switched. Who knows, I thought to myself—maybe there will be a tidbit in there that could help me on a clue or two.

Fast forward two days. I've been picked for the third episode taping that day. The returning champ is Sara Lehmann, a woman from Albuquerque who entered the previous episode's Final Jeopardy with four times the cash of the second place contestant. She was good on the buzzer, bet large on Daily Doubles, and knew seemingly everything. I was terrified to go up against her. My one shot coincided with going against one of the better players I've seen.

I managed to hold my own for the first round of the game. I even got $2000 back when a response I gave earlier ("What is Firewood?") was ruled correct after a review. However, Sara responded correctly on a true Daily Double at the end of the round to take a commanding lead going into Double Jeopardy.

When you're on the show, everything is a blur. I had tunnel vision, focusing on the clues and only the clues with no hunting for Daily Doubles or paying attention to the scores. So when I did stumble upon a Daily Double, I was surprised to see myself in the hunt with over $10,000 and $5000 behind Sarah. I (hindsight: regrettably) wagered conservatively and got an easy one ("What is vulcanization?") to keep it competitive.

When the round ended, I found myself down by $5400 after an incorrect $2000 response. ("What is Mauritius?") My only hope at this point would be a Final Jeopardy that Sara would get wrong.

Then the Final Jeopardy category came up: Modern Opera.

Someone cursed. Others groaned. I laughed. Of course I'd get the opera category. I know little to nothing about opera. I only made it through two-thirds of Faust before leaving out of sheer boredom. It's just not my thing.

I considered betting small, assuming we'd all get it wrong, and hope that Sarah would bet big. But something kept nagging me. Modern Opera. That issue of mental_floss I read on the plane had an article on the modern opera Nixon in China. I remember reading the words "modern opera" about eight times in it. (On a re-read, I found that while those two words appear frequently in it, they're never together.)

I decided this had to be a sign, and bet big. If I was wrong, there was no way I'd win. I was gambling away my one Jeopardy! experience on a response before I even saw the clue.

Jeopardy! (Season 29.3-3) - Sara, Michelle, & Erik by R38102

Back from commercial, the clue is revealed: "This opera begins with Air Force One landing at Beijing."

If you watch the episode, you can see me write the response, very carefully dot the i in Nixon, then take a sigh of relief. But I wasn't out of the woods yet.

The third place contestant, Michelle, answered "What is Miss Saigon?", not a bad guess under the circumstances. I got mine of course. Then it got to Sara who blanked. There it is right there: life's dream realized. Sure, it may be a shallow dream, but Jeopardy! has been my favorite show since I was a teenager.

So thanks to you, mental_floss, I can forever call myself a Jeopardy! Champion, even if it's just for one day. If I wasn't already planning on being a lifetime subscriber, that cemented it.

I've attached two pictures—one of me with Trebek, and the other with my celebratory tattoo. The star represents my one victory (like a World Cup winning team puts on their jerseys). The roman numerals, 6448, represent the episode number. And I'm sure you recognize the little guy swimming through the letters.

Erik Dresner

In case you ever end up on a game show, you should subscribe or download the iPad version of mental_floss.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.