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The Quick 10: This... Is... Jeopardy!

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It is a momentous occasion, fellow_flossers, perhaps one that isn't that important to those who aren't inclined toward somewhat educational trivia. Yes: it's Alex Trebek's birthday. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating about the importance of the day, but what would Jeopardy! be without Trebek's more-than-slightly condescending tone? To acknowledge the birth of everyone's favorite foul-mouthed mouthpiece (more on that in a second), here are a few fascinating facts about the show that made trivia a little less trivial.

trebek 1. Merv Griffin was trying to think of game show ideas while on a flight with his wife Julann. She mentioned that since the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, there had really been no simple question-and-answer game shows on T.V. She suggested switching it up and giving the answers instead of the questions. "She fired a couple of answers to me: '5,280' and the question of course was 'How many feet in a mile?'. Another was '79 Wistful Vista.' That was Fibber and Mollie McGee's address," Griffin later said. "I loved the idea, went straight to NBC with the idea, and they bought it without even looking at a pilot."
2. Despite Ken Jennings' impressive run, the highest cumulative amount won by a single contestant belongs to Brad Rutter, a player whose combined totals of his 2002 streak and 2005 "Ultimate Tournament of Champions" streak netted him $3,255,102. Ken Jennings has racked up $ 2,520,700 thus far. Ken does, however, hold the highest one-day total record: $75,000.

3. Merv Griffin wrote the famous (or infamous, depending on how susceptible you are to earworms) theme music himself. When the show was first on the air in the 1960s, the tune was only used for the Final Jeopardy round. It wasn't until Alex Trebek came along that it was used to represent the entire show. The song actually has a name "“ it's called "Time, For Tony," and is named after Merv's son.

4. A few stars who have won Celebrity Jeopardy!: Carol Burnett, Luke Perry, Rosie O'Donnell, Dean Stockwell (Al from Quantum Leap), Stephen King, LeVar Burton, Laura Innes, Isaac Mizrahi, Brett Butler, Alicia Witt, Mark McEwen, Sam Waterston, Chris Hardwick (remember him? He used to host MTV's Singled Out), Benjamin Salisbury, Mike Piazza, Tim Russert, Dee Dee Myers, Andrea Mitchell, Patricia Schroeder, Robin Quivers, Sinbad, Fred Savage, Thomas Gibson, Bob Costas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wallace Langham, Graham Nash, Andy Richter, Nathan Lane, Jon Stewart, Martha Stewart, Eric Idle, Jodie Foster, Peter Krause, Wayne Brady, Hal Sparks, Tucker Carlson, Anderson Cooper, Ari Fleischer, Al Franken, Neil Patrick Harris, Regis Philbin, Harry Shearer and Aisha Tyler. Whew.

5. Three stars who have never been on Celebrity Jeopardy!: Burt Reynolds, Sean Connery and Sharon Osbourne. Trebek and the Jeopardy! crew must have a good sense of humor about the whole thing, though, because the SNL version is occasionally referenced on the real thing, even using some of the categories "misinterpreted" by Sean Connery. In 2001, Double Jeopardy! categories included, "Sean Connery," "Surprise Me, Trebek!," "Therapists," "Things You Shouldn't Put in Your Mouth," "The Number After 2," and "Rhymes with Dog." A 2006 episode played off of another of Connery's misreadings - "Japan-U.S. Relations," which Connery read as "Jap Anus Relations."

6. During Trebek's first season, contestants could buzz in to answer the question as soon as the answer was revealed, giving the advantage to fast readers. After that, it was changed so they had to wait until Trebek finished reading the answer out loud or be penalized.

7. During one episode of the original series, which began in 1964 and featured Art Fleming as the host, all three contestants failed Double Jeopardy! by ending the round with $0 or less. The Final Jeopardy! round was filled by having Fleming chat with the contestants.

8. Just the opposite happened on March 16, 2007. All three contestants ended Final Jeopardy! with the exact same dollar amount - $16,000. They answered the final question correctly and all managed to bet an amount that would even them out. After the show, Jeopardy! execs contacted a Game Theory expert who calculated the odds of such a thing happening at 1 in 25 million. All three contestants returned the next day to face off again, the first time all three contestants had ever returned the next day in the show's history. Let's see if you know the answer to the question they all got right:

The clue: Women of the 1930s
The answer: One of the men who shot her realized when he saw her body that she'd often waited on him at a cafe in Dallas."

9. Many television shows and movies have featured Jeopardy!, as a key plot point. Among them: Mama's Family, Cheers, The Simpsons, The Nanny, White Men Can't Jump, and, of course, Rain Man.

10. Alex Trebek has a pottymouth. This is an old YouTube sensation, so you may have already seen it. There's definitely some language, so watch at your own risk, and don't do it without headphones if you're at work. Unless you have a really cool boss, I guess. By the way, I don't think he's really drunk. But I could be wrong.

Today's pressing Quick 10 Question: Who misses the mustache? C'mon.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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