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Double Jeopardy! An Interview with Ken Jennings

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Earlier today we heard from quiz-show whiz Bob Harris -- now we've got Ken Jennings, who is famous for giving our favorite Jeopardy! answer of all time (we also think he might have won a few games). Here's what he had to say about the glory of geekiness, 4,700-year-old pine trees, and his great new book, Brainiac:

In the book you write that "trivia" isn't necessarily trivial. So how do you define "trivia," and what makes for a good piece of it?
You can always define "trivia" downward so that it's restricted to only truly "trivial" stuff: different colors of kryptonite from old Superman comics, or plot points from episodes of F Troop. But I think, intuitively, most of us don't define trivia that way. We see trivia as unusual little factoids about any subject, whether it's history or science or hip-hop or college football. And when you look at it that way, you might as well call trivia "cultural literacy" or "general knowledge." It's the stuff that we all should know, regardless of our various upbringings and career niches, and so it's often the shared knowledge that brings people together socially. It sparks airplane chitchat and first-date conversation and breaks the ice at parties.

Also, because trivia tends to be the fun, approachable tip of the knowledge iceberg, on any subject, it tends to make any subject look appealing. You may not think you're interested in botany, but it's still sort of cool to know that there's a bristlecone pine tree in California that's over 4,700 years old. Maybe you couldn't care less about opera, but it's interesting that the the legendary composer Puccini loved fast cars and was, in fact, nearly killed in one of Italy's first car crashes. Trivia can be the foot in the door that makes you want to learn more about a new and possibly forbidding subject.

You and Stephen Colbert are on the way to coining a new word: "Poindexterity." Colbert's sort of a geek himself, but he's hugely popular -- so are nerds/geeks/etc becoming the popular kids? Can "Poindexterity" be cool?
In Brainiac, I describe hiding my trivia light under a bushel sometime around puberty, when I started to see how society at large regarded trivia nerds. There's no reason to be a graceless know-it-all, but I agree that the stigma against nerds/geeks is on the way out, for a couple reasons. One is that we're all "geeks" (i.e. encyclopedic experts) about some subject, our own pet subject, nowadays. It might be James Bond or hockey or food trivia or Lost, but everyone's a trivia "geek" about something. Secondly, the decades-old jock/nerd struggle has sort of petered out lately. The young tech bazillionaires today are all nerds. All the biggest hit movies are about hobbits and boy wizards and superheroes and other nerd icons. In a way, the nerds won.

The comments you made on your blog about Jeopardy! were clearly just an affectionate jest -- but are you still getting some guff for them? I saw a TV host ask you if the Trebek version of the show had been dumbed down from the earlier incarnation "“ are you baited like that more often now?
Sometimes I get baited to trash Jeopardy! from interviewers who don't like the show -- maybe it's anti-intellectualism, more often it's just because they genuinely don't like Trebek. But I can't really muster anything bad to say about Jeopardy! It's been my favorite TV show for like 20 years, even before it made me a household name. In the wake of the misquoted blog post, I did get plenty of angry e-mail from Jeopardy! defenders, so it's clear that there are still plenty of people who love the show just as much as I do.

You've said that fans seem to keep extra-hard trivia on hand just for you. How often do you get stumped? And why do you think people have this urge to test you?
I'm genuinely stumped pretty often, mostly because it's harder to formulate good trivia than most people think. Ideally trivia questions should be both interesting and attainable, but a more common layman's approach is, "Let me ask the most obscure thing I can think of about the 1959 Detroit Tigers" or whatever their pet pastime is. I cheerfully get these questions wrong, and congratulate them on their knowledge, but I don't feel too bad about it.

I think the impulse to stump is pretty common among trivia fans. It's not enough to know something: you have to show that you know more of something than someone else. I'd like to see trivia as more collaborative enterprise -- I always love hearing new weird tidbits from other people. There's a camaraderie that comes from that kind of shared knowledge which is, to me, more rewarding than the competitive thrill of merely showing off.

One of your trademarks on Jeopardy! was moving systematically down the board. Why do it that way? And what do you think were your most important winning strategies?
Moving methodically down Jeopardy! categories isn't uncommon -- in fact, the show recommends it. It's easier to follow at home, and it also helps players acclimate to a category before getting to the really hard clues. I would say my recommended Jeopardy! strategy comes down to two things: at-home preparation, and conservative wagering. Watching the show religiously at home will help you see your strong and weak points, and what common areas of
Jeopardy! knowledge (world capitals, presidents, Shakespeare) you need to bone up on, but it also helps you try to internalize the timing of the famously tricky Jeopardy! signaling devices. And I can't say enough about not betting too much on Daily Doubles, if you're happy with your position. In fact, I lost my last game because of two too-high Daily Double wagers.

You're working on a new show, which I've seen referred to variously as 1 vs. 100 and Ken Jennings Versus the Rest of the World. I'm gonna guess the first title is the real one -- what else can you tell us about the show?
These are two different shows. I taped an appearance for the first episode of NBC's upcoming quiz show 1 vs. 100 because they were inviting past game show success stories onto their show, and I was hoping to meet some of my fellow quiz show millionaires. Ken Jennings vs. the Rest of the World is a quiz show that Who Wants to be a Millionaire? producer Michael Davies and I were developing for Comedy Central. Comedy Central liked the show, but didn't really have a timeslot for it anymore, so we've been shopping it around elsewhere. I don't know if it'll ever see air, but, as a big game show fan myself, I'd love to do my part to revive the American game show. It's sort of a struggling genre at the moment.

I know you really enjoyed writing this book and you've said you want to write another one. Where do you want to go with that?
I'm not 100% sure yet. Now that I've written a book about trivia, I'm tempted to write another book of trivia. I stored up so many great facts working on Brainiac that it would be great to get them all out of my system and stop annoying my wife with them. Also, I've been asked so often about my own freakish memory that I've started to wonder why I don't understand the phenomenon of memory better. I'd like to write a book on the mystery of human memory and how it might actually work.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]