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4 Reasons You Must Watch HBO's "John Adams"

At last night's Emmy Awards, HBO's John Adams miniseries won a boatload of awards. It's out on DVD now, and I enjoyed the heck out of it when it aired on HBO earlier this year. It's must-watch material for anyone with a keen interest in American history, and "should-watch" material for everyone else. Here are a few reasons why I think you should give it a look.

1. It's the Emmy-Winningest Miniseries of All Time

John Adams won a staggering thirteen Emmies, which makes it the biggest winner in miniseries history. Among the honors it received were Outstanding Miniseries, Outstanding Writing (Kirk Ellis), and both Lead Actor and Lead Actress (in a Miniseries of Movie) awards for Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. Tom Wilkinson also got a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Benjamin Franklon. If that's not enough, go read the full list of awards at Wikipedia. (While you're there, check out the list of historical inaccuracies in the miniseries.)

2. A "Low Talker" With a Lot to Say

You can easily tell from the trailer that Paul Giamatti's performance as John Adams, while excellent, is sort of hard to hear. There's a lot of mumbling and whispering going on, even in scenes where you'd expect shouting (for example, in courtrooms). If you're a mumblephobe like me, just turn on your TV's closed captioning (or subtitles on the DVD) to catch the dialog -- trust me, it helps. For a taste of Giamatti's low talking, here's the trailer:

3. It Humanizes the American Revolution

The events of the American Revolution are truly remote to most Americans today -- a few hundred years will tend to do that. HBO sought to made a miniseries of huge scale and budget (over $100 million) that still focused on the core drama of the personal lives of John and Abigail Adams and their children. By examining the story of the Revolution on two scales: the national political struggle, as well as its personal cost to a family, the miniseries succeeds in explaining why Adams was such an interesting guy. (He was also kind of a jerk, especially to his kids, but perhaps you'll give him points for public service.) But seriously, there's a lot to digest in this collision of public and private life -- Adams keeps finding himself torn between duties to country and duties to family, and he really does have to choose one (as duty to country often means being on another continent for years, as well as braving dangerous ocean voyages, wars, disease, and so on).

4. Tom Hanks Does Great TV

Tom Hanks was Executive Producer (with Gary Goetzman) for the miniseries. Hanks has been involved with a ton of good television in recent years, including Band of Brothers, From the Earth to the Moon, and even Big Love. Check out this video to hear Hanks and writer David McCullough talk about the making of the miniseries:

Have I convinced you to "John or Die?" You can get a copy of the miniseries on DVD at Amazon for under $40. It's also available on Netflix (three-disc series).

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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