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A.J. Jacobs - The Ultimate Guinea Pig

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If you enjoy my posts on this blog, you have A.J. Jacobs to thank. Yes, Mr. Know-it-All was the guy who recommended me to Will Pearson and Mangesh about a year before we all started blogging here. In fact, A.J. was planning to do some more regular blogging back in the early days, too, and was on a lot of our early conference calls as we plotted to take over of the blogosphere!!!! [insert maniacal Austin Powers laugh] (Did you read Jason's post last week? Clearly we're well on our way now!)

Anyway, A.J. is one of the few people I know who really follows that Randian philosophy: "There is no competition among men;" we should all be so selfless and upstanding. We should all be so talented, too.

Chances are, you already know a lot about A.J. and his amazing quests to read the entire encyclopedia, or live his life according to all the commandments in the Bible. (If you missed the latter, check out one of A.J.'s own posts on this blog about the experience.)

Today, we're thrilled to help A.J. promote his fantastic, new book, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment "“ just out in stores now. And tomorrow, we'll be giving away 5 brand new copies of the book in a fun contest you're not going to want to miss. But, as always, you'll better your chances in the contest if you read the whole Q&A below, and really get to know this unusually talented, hilarious mouth breather [his words! not mine!].

DI: I haven't read the whole book yet, but I really loved all the experiments I read, especially the one where you posed as your nanny and picked up men online, and the one where you outsourced your entire life to Bangalore. I also dug the one where you had to obey your wife's every whim and command; that one was especially close to home for me. But certainly there must have been one or two experiments that got cut from the book. Talk a little about them, and why they were left out.

AJ: Well, I get a lot of suggestions for experiments from friends, family and readers. One reader suggested I do all the positions in the kama sutra. My wife shot that one down pretty quickly. So not all of them make it out of the planning stage.

Check out this hilarious teaser for the new book!

DI: Which was your favorite experiment to conduct?

AJ: One that I loved was the quest to become the most rational person alive. Sort of a "˜What Would Spock Do.' Because it made me realize just how irrational human behavior is. And how many of our life decisions are made based on inertia and laziness. Like something as simple as what toothpaste we use. I've been using Colgate for 30 years. Why? Because some guy at my sleepaway camp used Colgate, and he seemed cool, so I started using it and never stopped. But for this project, I scrutinized every single decision, and I realized"¦.I HATE the taste of mint Colgate. It's medicinal. So I tried a whole bunch of different toothpastes. And it was a revelation! I now use Tom's of Maine orange/mango-flavored toothpaste. And it's delicious. It's like eating dessert. Those little decisions make a huge difference in quality of life.

DI: If you weren't married, weren't a well-known, respected author out there doing book tours and such, if you had no living family left on earth, what kind of experiments might you have attempted? Go ahead, unleash your inner-nerd, we won't hold these against you. We know"¦ these are just *hypothetical* experiments.

AJ: At one point, I wanted to do an experiment where I interacted with people exclusively through technology "“ Facebook, email, IM, etc. My wife nixed that one too. She said, you're NOT attending our niece's bat mitzvah via Skype. You are showing up there in person.

I'd also love to read the entire Wikipedia. I'd consider that time well spent. I feel a bit guilty saying that, since my first book was about reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. But I find the breadth of Wikipedia alluring. I spend hours a week Wikitunneling (hopping from one wiki-link to another). I'd never get to write a book about it since I'd never finish.

DI: People have called you a modern-day George Plimpton. Even you refer to the master in your book. Okay, so Plimpton was a great journalist. We all know that. And not such a bad actor. Right? Right. But I'll still always remember him as the classy face of Mattel's Intellivision, which I owned (still own!) and worshipped, cradled, slept with, dusted vigrously"¦ What about you? We're about the same age; were you an Atari guy? Intellivision? What was your favorite game? What cartridge did you wear out first?

AJ: I loved an Atari game called Adventure. You ever see that one? You had to get the chalice and kill the dragons and trap the bats. It was particularly exciting because it contained a secret room "“ according to Wikipedia, it's the first video game Easter Egg in history. Players had to pick up an invisible gray dot and bring it below the golden castle, where it would open a room that had the words "Created by Warren Robinett." And then the gray dot would have sex with a prostitute. Or maybe I'm misremembering that last part.

DI: There will probably come a day when you've put yourself through every test there is, and written adroitly about it—or maybe when you grow bored with this wonderful niche you're creating. Have you given any thought to what you'll write about then? Do you have any aspirations to pen a novel?

AJ: I don't think novels are in my future. I love non-fiction too much. Plus I don't think novels come naturally to me. Though I do think that there should be a novel about Belle Boyd. Hers was an amazing tale I learned about in the encyclopedia. She was a beautiful female spy for the confederacy during the US Civil war -- who ended up falling in love with a Union soldier and eloping. A real Romeo and Juliet story. A novel waiting to be written.

DI: Besides Plimpton, what other writers do you like?

AJ: I love Bill Bryson. And Mark Twain. I love Victorian non-fiction, like Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey. And also David Israel, even though he's not Victorian. [DI note: AJ, can I use that as a blurb on the back of my next book?]

DI: Talk a little shop for a mo. What's your process like? I know in one of the chapters you talk about writing 2 hours each day, in the morning. But is that your norm?

AJ: I actually write a lot from 10 pm till 2 a.m. It's the quietest time of the day for me. I've got three young kids, so the mornings are category five storms.

DI: Do you ever get writer's block? How do you deal?

AJ: I once did some research on writer's block. If I remember correctly, Nabakov wrote standing up. Ben Franklin wrote in the bath. And the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller used the smell of rotten apples to get him in the writing mood.
So that's what I want to try: Standing up in a bath filled with rotten apples.
Instead, I usually start writing sentences about any old thing "“ about my socks, about a glass of orange juice. I know I'm going to delete these passages, but it's a way to get warmed up.

DI: Many writers say they find the writing process more rewarding than the actual
publishing process. What about you? What's the best part for you?

AJ: I actually love the research process best. I love diving in and reading all the literature. And I love interviewing people and hanging out with scientists and professors and George Washington impersonators and so on. When I was researching The Year of Living Biblically, I think I became the first person to out-Bible talk a Jehovah's Witness. He came over to my house and after three hours he looked at his watch and said, "˜I have to go!'

DI: What's the best thing about being A.J. Jacobs?

AJ: I recently got an iPhone and I now listen to Podcasts on double-speed. So I can ingest an hour of Fresh Air in just half an hour!

DI: What's the worst thing about being A.J. Jacobs?

AJ: Well, I have trouble breathing through my nose, so I'm a bit of a mouth breather. Mouth breathers get a bad rap, you know?

DI: If you could go back in time and live your life as an experiment with a historical figure, how would that go?

AJ: One idea: I'd ask to be Goethe's apprentice. He was an 18th century German writer (Faust), but he was more than that. He was the most well-rounded man in history. He was a master of all trades. He was, among other things: a lawyer, a painter, theater manager, botanist, statesman, alchemist, biologer, soldier, astrologer, novelist, songrwiter, mine inspector, clothing designer and irrigation supervisor. I'd love to try to be mini-Goethe.

DI: You talk about your three boys a lot in the new book. If one of the comes to you one day and says, "Dad, I want to be a journalist," what advice would you give him?

AJ: Have genuine and deep curiousity. Notice the details "“ how people talk, what places sound like, what they smell like. And don't misspell the name "˜Wayne Gretzky,' because his fans will write you angry letters.

DI: Lastly, what's on deck for you?

AJ: My next project is the final part of my self-improvement series. I've worked on the mind (The Know-it-All). I've worked on the spirit (The Year of Living Biblically). Now I'm going to work on the body. I'm trying to become the healthiest person alive. No more junk food, not even Graham Crackers "“ which mental floss readers might know were originally designed as health food in the 19th century by a wacky diet guru named Sylvester Graham who hoped the crackers would, among other things, discourage self-pleasuring.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]