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4 Movies about Fact Checking

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From His Girl Friday to All the President's Men, Hollywood has had an odd fascination with journalists. They're portrayed as glorified detectives that seek out the truth for innocent people or unravel political scandals. But what of the fact checkers? Fact checkers are the uniquely American members of the editorial chain, making sure that everything printed in a magazine is correct. Almost every journalist has spent some time as a fact checker; this Wikipedia article has an assuredly incomplete list of former fact checkers (and yes, I do see the irony in linking to a Wikipedia article when writing about fact checking). As it turns out, Hollywood has given some love to the fact checkers. Here are three of the biggest fact checking movies, along with one online video.

Shattered Glass

Shattered Glass is the movie all journalism students should see. Besides imparting the important lessons that you can't just stumble on an amazing story and that most reporting isn't fun, it has an extended sequence about how articles get edited at a major magazine. On the other hand, it also shows the best way to beat the fact checking system "“ only use reporter's notes. The movie follows the true story of Stephen Glass (played by Hayden Christensen of Darth Vader fame), a reporter at The New Republic who fabricated most of his pieces. He is outed by a reporter at a rival magazine and done in by some intrepid fact checking. Of course, it really doesn't take much to get through some of Glass' lies- he makes up the phone numbers for his sources, then gives the flimsiest of flimsy excuses for them not picking up.

Makes fact checkers look like: Sherlock Holmes

Bright Lights, Big City

In between making the three Back to the Future installments, Michael J. Fox starred in Bright Lights, Big City, an adaptation of the Jay McInerney novel. Fox plays Jamie Conway, a fact checker for The New Yorker who's also addicted to cocaine. Besides being a fact checker at the so-called "Vatican of fact checking," Conway's life is in shambles "“ his wife left him, his mother has died and he's actually about to be fired. I guess fact checking isn't always as good as it seems.

Makes fact checkers look like: Kate Moss

Almost Famous

almost famous.jpegIf Almost Famous made reporters look like party people, it made the fact checkers out to be cops. Young William Miller follows the fictional band Stillwater on tour and writes about his experiences hanging out with the band and their entourage (including the groupie Penny Lane). Everything looks great (after all, he just partied with Billy Crudup) and the story is ready to be printed in Rolling Stone, until a fact checker cancels the story because the band won't verify it. Of course, this being Hollywood, things work out in the end, as the band confirms the story and the nasty fact checker is thwarted.

Makes fact checkers look like: Tightwad Angela from The Office

FCU with Bill Murray

This video, featured on, shows fact checkers in the coolest light. The fact checkers walk with a swagger, work for a division named with an acronym and wear FCU jackets. The video follows the FCU on a Bond-like mission to find out if Bill Murray drinks a glass of warm milk before falling asleep, which includes meeting a secret source disguised as a hot dog vendor, rappelling down a building and getting to watch M*A*S*H* with Bill Murray. Sure, they probably could have just called Murray's publicist, but that wouldn't have been fun. (Warning: Some of the video may not be safe for work)

Makes fact checkers look like: Jack Bauer

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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]