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Double Jeopardy! with Ken Jennings and Bob Harris

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Who are Bob Harris and Ken Jennings? If you get that corny little joke, you already know -- they're both super-smart and slightly obsessive Jeopardy! stars, they both just wrote books about the experience, and they both like mental_floss (maybe you've seen Ken's column in our magazine). Today we're running interviews with both of them. First, let's hear from Bob, whose hugely funny new book is called Prisoner of Trebekistan:

While practicing for stints on the show, Bob Harris often referred to this as the "Jeopardy Weapon."
What is "the buzzer?" It's officially called a "Signaling Device," but that's not a name, really, just a placeholder for where one should go. So I tried to find something better: Clue Zapper, Palm Hoopty, Mr. Smartyhands, the Mervulator. I settled on the Jeopardy Weapon because when you've got the rhythm of the game, it's like you're holding the Hammer of Thor. You're crushing your opponents with your thumb.

Tell us about your training regimen "“ I hear you only ate the food you could get in the studio cafeteria.
It was the same reason why there's a home field advantage in sports. Basically, when your environment for recall is congruent with your environment for encoding, it's easier to recall your memories. Taken to the extreme, in my case, I wound up essentially turning my apartment into the Jeopardy! studio. I put bright halogen lights overhead and placed the TV as far away as it would go. I would study standing up. My girlfriend at the time thought I was out of my mind.

But she put up with it?
Define "putting up." She's a teacher and her experience was with conventional rote learning techniques, which for me amount to placing the book against your head and beating yourself unconscious. I think it was an insult to the way she makes her living. When I then came home after winning five straight games, that was even more of an affront.

What did you think of the brouhaha over Ken Jennings' recent comments about the show?
Ken got a bad rap. He was clearly kidding around. A lazy reporter took a playful, friendly tease and blew it up and the next thing you know it was in the North Korea Times. "¦ It was virtually the same grim joy that [the media] brought to the Mel Gibson story. We often as a society seize on fallen stars, Icarus stories. And the persistent message sent by these stories is that no matter hot or rich or successful the subjects are, they're not better than you.

In your book, you lay out a strategy for winning that starts with "obvious things may be worth noticing." Can you take us through it?
Seeing the obvious requires you to actually be present in the moment, to not be busy in your head. It sounds like the most elementary thing in the world but I think it's the most difficult, particularly for intelligent people who are always thinking. Sometimes there are problems that need to be solved not with faster or harder thought but with calming down. In Jeopardy! there's a hint in every clue, and sometimes it helps to you slow down and look for the hint. My Eightfold Path of Enlightened Jeopardy actually began as an unserious reference to Buddhism, and then what I ended up writing really was a lot like the actual Eightfold Path. Cool, huh?

So how did "seeing the obvious" work for you on the show?
Once in a big tournament there was a Final Jeopardy clue in British literature. I didn't know anything about British literature -- and the lady in second place was a librarian. So the clue comes up -- p-TING! -- "The 5th edition of this work, published in 1676, included an addendum on fly fishing by Charles Cotton." I panic immediately. My Jeopardy! career's about to end in 30 seconds. But then I take a breath and look for the hint. "1676?" I free-associate and come up with nothing but the movie "1776," involving a bunch of dancing middle-aged men in revolutionary garb. Nope. "Edition?" All I could come up with was New Edition "“ singing kids in music videos. Okay, I've got way too many people dancing in my skull. "Fly fishing?" OK, old book, big fish... Moby Dick! Then it dawns on me that you really can't fly fish a whale. Running out of time: Fishing, rods, reels, casting, ice fishing, angling "“ hey, there was a Beatles documentary once called "The Compleat Beatles" and that was a reference to "The Compleat Angler," which might be an old book about fish. Ta-da! At home it must have looked like I was a guy pondering his deep knowledge of literature. The truth is I found the obvious, then caromed off the walls until I found the answer via R&B and bad musicals.

That's one of the funniest arguments I've ever heard for interdisciplinary education.
Thanks! But we're taught to think that science and history and so on are unrelated. Hardly. In some ways my book is almost a 104,000-word act of prayer, hoping that people will see that everything really is connected. If we can't see how a piece of information is useful, that doesn't mean it's useless. A glass of water would be completely useless in a waterfall, but it could save your life in the ocean. All information has to be seen in its context. And you can't understand that without a broad general approach to stuff.

How did you get hooked on Jeopardy! to begin with?
My mom and dad had it on from the time it premiered in 1984. It premiered when I had just left college with an engineering degree that I quickly realized I never wanted to use. I went directly into a Dilbert job and then a depression. The show was a way my folks could make me feel like even enough I had no idea what I do would do next, I was still a modestly intelligent person. Of course, I then failed [the qualifying test] between four and six times. I actually lost count. Most people would have given up after the first, second, third time. I bet some stalkers probably give up more easily.

Why didn't you quit?
What kept me going was mainly an unconscious desire to please my mom and dad. Also, I was pretty broke.

Would you want to go back now?
Once you've been on the show and had your run, you're not going to come back unless they have some special invitational tournament. Which I've been lucky to be asked to a few times, but I'm probably never picking up a buzzer again. I'm retired, I'm out to stud. But if they did call"¦ It's like "The Godfather III" "“ you try to get out, but they keep dragging you back in.

Do you watch the show now?
Sometimes, sure. If it's on at a friend's house, I can get talked into playing so they can, I dunno, test themselves against me. As if that's a measure of anything.

What about the friends you've made as a contestant "“ what ties them together? Who tends to go on this show?
A certain level of intellect and education is useful, of course, but I think modesty is a wildly underappreciated Jeopardy! asset. The game dramatically rewards the ability not to guess. If you're not 90 percent sure of a response, the best thing you can do is put the buzzer down and wait for the next clue. And that is a rare skill. Jeopardy! is often less a test of knowledge than it is of self-knowledge. Also, good players tend to have really great listening skills, just to be able to play the game well. So basically, the same skills that work in Jeopardy! can also serve you well in life. Now, keep in mind that I've never won a tournament. So I may not be someone to listen to. But then again, of course I'd say that.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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.

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