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My Favorite Documentaries: Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

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Fast, Cheap and Out of ControlOne of my all-time favorite documentaries is Errol Morris's 1997 film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. As a punctuation nerd, I disagree with the lack of a serial comma in its title, but we'll let that slide. Anyway. This film is about humanity, the nature of life on earth, and how humans interact with their world. It covers a lot of ground.

One problem with Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is the naive marketing that surrounds it. The DVD box seems to think the film is a wacky look at some kooks -- it reads "...a fascinating portrait of four obsessed eccentrics. ... [A] kaleidoscopic look at the very thin line which separates madness from genius." Well...no. First, dismissing the interview subjects as "obsessed eccentrics" devalues the insight they have (and it's also a bit offensive). Second, this is a movie about how humans understand other forms of life -- animals, plants, even robots. This movie asks what it means to be human, and what separates humans from animals, plants, and robots. The line between madness and genius doesn't have anything to do with it.

Much more, including video clips, after the jump.

Using interviews with four men -- a "wild animal trainer" (aka lion tamer), a topiary gardener, a robot designer, and a naked mole rat expert -- Morris shows different modes of interaction with nature. While the lion tamer is all about control, respect, and dominance, the topiary gardener lives a dedicated, solitary existence concerned with patient nurturing. The naked mole rat expert is studying how organisms function in societies (in other words, he's looking at the function of the larger society-as-organism), and the robot designer is examining "life" at its most basic level -- in order to create artificial organisms. All of the men are very cognizant of the influence of the external environment on an organism -- how a creature is shaped by its environment. Through interviews and stock footage, Morris makes us ask: is the difference between humans and other organisms (animals, plants, and robots) our ability to control our environment, rather than responding to it? And if we're going to control our environment, how do we go about it -- do we live in symbiosis, do we dominate, do we create our own artificial life and artificial environments? Of course, we do all of these -- it's our nature.

There aren't many decent clips on YouTube of this documentary, unfortunately. You can watch the trailer at Video Detective, or a few (very low-resolution) clips at Sony Pictures Classics (scroll down to the bottom). I did manage to find one YouTube clip of Errol Morris talking about Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which is worth a peek:

And here's an example of the marketing that surrounds the film -- trending towards the wacky, but also mentioning the depth of the subject:

I'd recommend this PG-rated film to anyone -- I don't think you need to have any special interest in a topic area to enjoy it. I suppose the main qualification for enjoying this film is an interest in deep thoughts (and not just those by Jack Handey). You can rent it from Netflix or rent it from Blockbuster. Thanks for reading, and please keep the suggestions coming -- I've got a list of over 50 documentaries to watch based on your feedback!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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