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Friday Happy Hour: Could A TV Show Written Entirely By Fans Work?

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Jason's out this week, so we called in a worthy substitute to whip up this week's Friday Happy Hour. Below is a series of unrelated questions meant to spark conversation in the comments. Answer one, answer all, respond to someone else’s reply, whatever you want. Very casual. On to this week’s topics of discussion. Take it away, Brett!

1. My favorite scene from an episode of Parks and Recreation a few weeks back was when Ben started reading his Star Trek: The Next Generation fanfic to April when they were stuck in his car waiting for the president's motorcade to pass. Passionate fans of anything these days long for direct involvement in nearly all aspects of popular culture.

The scene got me wondering whether a certain method of composite creative writing could succeed on the screen. With the rise of social media, the popularity of fanfic, the prevalence of crowd-sourcing, and a free-floating desire for personal participation in modern culture, do you think that a television show written entirely by fans could work? What is the farthest possible extension of fan engagement?

Social media is believed to have helped reshape the show Lost to better suit/please its obsequious fan base (or to deliberately anger it, depending on your point of view). And if rubbish shows lazily extrapolated from Twitter, like $#*! My Dad Says, are permitted to appear on television, how long before someone just turns the writing process entirely over to the viewers?

How would you envision this theoretical process working? Would producers set the premise of the show, and establish the characters, and allow the fans to send in snippets dialogue? Whoever is running the show could pick whichever submissions worked best to compile the script of an episode, creating a montage of the best crowd-sourced writing to formulate a coherent narrative. Would this ever work? Is it only a matter of time before it happens? Could it only last for a short while before it devolved into a nonsensical disaster of nonlinear confusion? What do you think? I think it would be an interesting experiment. Kind of like Immersive Theater on TV.

2. Is there any sport you wish you had played when you were younger, but for whatever reason never did? For you non-sports people—is there an activity you wish you had taken up? Would you like to have played a certain instrument? Learned ballet? Taken up bottle-cap collecting?

3. The other day I heard the Weezer song "Say It Ain't So." I've probably heard this song, maybe, 100 times in my life at this point, give or take a few listens. No matter how many times I hear it, however, whenever it gets to the line "This bottle of Stevens awakens ancient feelings..." in my head I expect him to say "awakens ancient demons." I don't know why this happens. I know he says "feelings," because I've heard the song so many times and it's inarguable what he says, but for whatever reason my mind wants him to be saying "demons." Does this ever happen to you? Are there any song lyrics you'd like to alter in order to make them sound different, or change their meaning?

4. Last week's New Yorker cover was typically genius. As both a commentary on President Obama's perceived no-show at the first presidential debate, and a reference to Clint Eastwood's now-infamous performance at the GOP convention in Tampa, it works brilliantly. If you had to compare yourself to an inanimate object, what would you choose, and why?

See all the previous Friday Happy Hour transcripts.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]