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Book Report, part II: The Dead Guy Interviews with Michael Stusser

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From Michael Stusser's terrific new book The Dead Guy Interviews (available here). Oh, and be sure to read his introduction in the post below...

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_.jpgCharles Darwin's Belated Obituary
February 12, 1809 "“ April 19, 1882

Charles Robert Darwin was a British naturalist with a radical new theory about where we came from. Darwin attended Edinburgh University in 1825 and studied medicine. His attention soon moved to naturalism, and he began learning about evolution and acquired characteristics under Robert Edmund Grant.

It was a trip aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831 at the age of 22 that allowed Darwin to circumnavigate the world and develop hands-on hypotheses while encountering flora, tropical rainforests, fossils and untamed civilizations.

His theory of evolution by natural selection, The Origin of Species, was published in 1859 (twenty years after his voyage) and laid out the argument that the traits of living organisms change from one generation to the next, and include the emergence of new species over time. The theory rocked the world, and changed the way we saw ourselves. The possibility now existed that human beings no longer originated from Divine design, but shared a common ancestry with animals! Men from monkeys! Goodness gracious!

Right or wrong, Darwin's greatest accomplishment was to begin the debate and move the concept of evolution into the realm of serious scientific thought. He died at the age of 73, and was buried at Westminster Abbey, London, a rare honor for a scientist.

THE INTERVIEW

Michael Stusser: How'd you get into the whole field of naturalism?Charles Darwin: Like many youngsters, I used to collect stuff: coins and birds' eggs and rocks and flowers.

MS: I had a baseball card collection. Didn't give me any grand theories on the world, though.

CD: Well then I got into shooting game, which was damn fun. Brilliant, really. Started looking at their anataomy, the innards and all, and that's what got me to thinking, you know.

Much more after the jump!

MS: How'd you wind up in the tropics?

CD: I kissed up to Robert FitzRoy (the Captain of the HMS Beagle) and he let me carry his bags on what was supposed to be a two-year expedition along the coastline of South America.

MS: Sounds a little "Gilligan's Island."

CD: We wound up being out there five years (1831-1836) but I don't think we charted any island called Gilligan, and I took copius notes.

MS: You got incredibly seasick. How'd you deal with that?

CD: I vomited a lot. Just plain hurled overboard. I also spent as much time as I could on land writing in my diary (a 770 page whopper, with 1750 pages of notes, and 12 catalogs of 5436 bones, skins, shells and carcasses). All told, I only spent 18 months aboard that ship.

MS: Does the theory of evolution mean there is no god?

CD: No, I think it's compatible with a belief in god. It's quite possible god made the earth, and let the natural laws of evolution take over. No need to be a complete control freak"¦.

MS: But you are agnostic.

CD: I am - but I'm well aware that the mystery of the beginning of all things is going to remain as such.

MS: This thing about acquired characteristics. Does it mean humans will lose their little toes at some point?

CD: The theory is that, over time, new generations' individual traits become enhanced with repeated use"“

MS: Like opposable thumbs.

CD: Right-o. And that they can be removed if we don't use "˜em. So perhaps your great-great-great grandkids will have one less toe. But I doubt it. More likely, they'll be playing video games with their feet, talking on the phone and driving with their bloody noses!

MS: Let's talk about the theory of "creationism" "“

CD: Bible stories.

MS: Well today they're calling creationism, Intelligent Design. Any thoughts on that label?

CD: I guess I'd have to say that any intelligent designer that made 99.9 percent of every organism he or she designed go extinct, couldn't be all that intelligent.

MS: You really did anger some Bible Thumpers with your theory of evolution.

CD: I can understand that. If you want to keep telling the Adam and Eve story "“ creationism - it's hard to allow for evolution. We either got put on the earth by god as fully formed people, or we evolved from something a little less human.

MS: On a personal note, you found an odd way to decide whether or not to marry.

CD: Oh, the list!

MS: Go on.

CD: Well, you know, I was quite the cataloguer, so I drew up a little cost-benefit analysis on the concept of marriage. Pros and cons, that sort of thing.

MS: How'd that turn out?

CD: The advantages clearly outweighed the disadvantages, and I asked Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896) to marry me.

MS: She was your first cousin. Talk about evolutionary theories"¦.

CD: If that's meant to be a slight, I do not appreciate it.

MS: Gotta clear something out "“ cuz I don't like being compared to an ape. My wife does that. See, if one accepts that humans were descended from animals, it's also true that humans are animals.

CD: Arrrgh.

MS: So, in the end, my great-great relative's some sort of ape?

CD: That's a misconception, dear man, and the reason everyone ran around at one point looking for the "missing link." It's also the reason I waited 20 years to publish my book.

MS: So, am I a monkey or not?

CD: You're not an anthropoid ape. Our relationship to chimps is through a common ancestor, not through direct descent. And we're talking about something that happened ten million years ago, so you can stop looking in that family tree you have there"¦

MS: Ever hear of the Darwin Awards?

CD: No.

MS: You'll like this: They give an award each year to commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives.

CD: They kill themselves? Bugger right off?

MS: Yeah, but in an extremely idiotic manner, thereby improving our species' chance of long-term survival. Dolts who eat anthrax or jam forks into light sockets, that kinda thing.

CD: Evolution in action "“ trial and fatal error. I like it. Now put down the chainsaw, sonny.

END OF INTERVIEW

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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