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Columbia Journalism Review Interviews Errol Morris

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The Columbia Journalism Review has posted an excellent long-form interview with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, entitled Recovering Reality: Errol Morris on Abu Ghraib.

The interview covers Morris's new project (undertaken with Philip Gourevitch) Standard Operating Procedure, which will examine the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs and their true context. Now, I've talked about Morris several times on this blog, so it's fair to say I'm a fan. But ever since I saw an online video from last October showing Morris and Gourevitch discussing Abu Ghraib for The New Yorker, I've been dying to see the new film -- but also dreading it, due to its subject matter. The film isn't here yet (it comes out on April 25), but there's certainly plenty of discussion with Morris to tide me over in the meantime.

The CJR interview has much to do (unsurprisingly) with issues of journalism and truth. Here's a representative sample:

None of your films has been particularly concerned with what we might call balanced journalism. In Standard Operating Procedure, the point of view largely belongs to the soldiers who took the photographs and were subsequently indicted. What is your aversion to stories that employ a more traditional weighing of arguments?

I don't believe that's journalism. I'm sorry. [laughs] Take a clear example: I made this film, The Thin Blue Line, about a murder case in Dallas. Is the job of a journalist simply to have everybody weigh in on what his or her viewpoint might be? Or should the journalist find out what really happened? Is it a matter of indifference whether [the suspect] is guilty or innocent? Is it just something that we should have a vote on -- as if a vote can determine what actually transpired in reality?

That doesn't mean you don't interview people with different points of view, different beliefs, different ideas. Of course you do. You interview lots and lots and lots of people, and look at lots of different kinds of evidence. But a journalist's job -- and I do think of myself as a kind of journalist -- is to try and ferret out what really happened; to ferret out the truth. Did these soldiers, these "seven bad apples," create all of this stuff? One of the things that we learn in the movie is that when they arrive at Abu Ghraib, a lot of this stuff is already in place: the stress positions, the cement bags, the hooding, stripping prisoners naked, sleep deprivation. It was there to begin with. It was there when they walked in. I think that is a very, very important detail. People know very little about this place: what happened there, where these policies came from, whether they were in fact policies, what they were hoping to achieve.

After the jump, check out a (beautifully shot) video showing part of the interview.

Note that the video doesn't cover the entire text of the interview. Morris fans will likely want to read the printed interview as well.

See also: Standard Operating Procedure web site; Errol Morris's web site.

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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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