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5 Reasons We'll Miss Arthur C. Clarke

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The late Sir Arthur C. Clarke was loved by nerds and normals alike for his contributions to literature, film, and technology. Here's a rundown of the five biggest reasons we'll miss him.

1. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World

Clarke kept extensive files on mysterious events, objects, and locations throughout the world. Starting in the early 1980's, he mined these files to bring us Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, a thirteen-part TV series covering topics ranging from UFOs to crystal skulls. The show told fascinating stories and Clarke classified them according to his three categories of mystery (dubbed, simply enough, the first, second, and third kinds) depending on how well they're currently understood.

While the show is very dated (and a few of the "mysteries" have since been definitively explained as hoaxes), it's great fun, and Clarke's sober introductions to each story are fascinating to watch. I remember watching the show after school when I was growing up, and it brings back memories -- the series gave me a sense of wonder, and introduced me to notions of scientific skepticism which have served me well. Today you can watch bits of Mysterious World on YouTube. Here's a clip from one episode, in which Clarke narrates a solar eclipse (a "mystery of the first kind" -- one that was a mystery to our ancestors, but is understood now):

In 1985, Clarke returned with Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers featuring another thirteen episodes on strange topics, and again in 1994 with Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe, his final series on the weird.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke teamed up with director Stanley Kubrick to write 2001: A Space Odyssey, a landmark film released in 1968. The film was originally based on a previous short story of Clarke's, but the collaboration with Kubrick significantly expanded the narrative. During development, Clarke kept an amusing diary detailing his work with Kubrick. Here's a selection:

July 9. Spent much of afternoon teaching Stanley how to use the slide rule -- he's fascinated.

July 11. Joined Stanley to discuss plot development, but spent almost all the time arguing about Cantor's Theory of Transfinite Groups. Stanley tries to refute the "part equals the whole" paradox by arguing that a perfect square is not necessarily identical with the integer of the same value. I decide that he is a latent mathematical genius.

July 12. Now have everything -- except the plot.

Read more of the diary for lots of great 2001 trivia. Warning: if you haven't seen the film, the diary is full of spoilers! 2001 is also an excellent book (released shortly after the film, and with a bit more backstory about why certain things are happening), and sci-fi fans should also check out 2010, 2061, and 3001. (Although I'll admit, the latter two volumes are a little corny around the edges.)

3. The Communications Satellite

Clarke is widely credited with dreaming up the idea of geostationary satellites -- orbiting satellites that enable worldwide communications networks. He published his ideas in a 1945 article entitled Extra-Terrestrial Relays - Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?

Clarke didn't patent the idea and thus didn't profit from it, leading to a 1965 article entitled: "A Short Pre-History of Comsats; or How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time." Other inventors came up with similar ideas around the same time, and there's some disagreement as to whose idea it was first. Regardless, Clarke is already remembered as the originator of this particularly great idea.

4. Clarke's Laws

Clarke's interest in science, the future, and famous mysteries led him to formulate three laws on the nature of prediction. The third law has become famous, and is reprinted widely -- it even appeared on my father's office door when I was growing up. The three laws are listed below (with emphasis added to my favorite):

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

5. His Sense of Humor

Throughout his endeavors, Clarke maintained his quiet, good-natured sense of humor. In 2006, WIRED magazine invited him to contribute to a series of Very Short Stories which were supposed to consist of only six words, after Hemingway's famous example. Clarke, true to his lifelong practice of writing long, multi-volume fiction, insisted on writing ten words instead:

God said, 'Cancel Program GENESIS.' The universe ceased to exist.

Please share your memories of Arthur C. Clarke's life and work in the comments.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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