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6 More Prizes Not Awarded for Length

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Last week's announcement that President Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize raised eyebrows around the world. Even his staunchest supporters seemed to admit that it was a bit odd the president would win such a prestigious award so early in his first term. We're not here to get political, though. Instead, let's take a look at some other big awards that weren't given out for length of performance or service time.

1. Rafael Palmeiro's Gold Glove

Some baseball fans will tell you that Gold Gloves are the ultimate measure of a player's fielding prowess. More statistically oriented modern fans would argue that the awards are essentially meaningless fluff that usually go to players who bat well rather than superlative fielders. The latter camp gets quite a bit of mileage out of one particularly egregious Gold Glove: Rafael Palmeiro claiming the 1999 award as the American League's best fielding first baseman.

Surprisingly, Palmeiro's Gold Glove wasn't a travesty because of any steroid rumors or creepy Viagra commercials featuring the slugger. Instead, the award was curious because Palmeiro simply hadn't played very much first base during the 1999 season—just 28 games to be exact. He spent the balance of the season serving as the Rangers' designated hitter. In any event, Palmeiro claimed his fourth Gold Glove that year despite not wearing a leather mitt all that often.

2. Dolores Gray's Tony

Compared to Dolores Gray's Tony, Palmeiro had to work himself to the bone for that Gold Glove, though. On September 8, 1953, the new musical Carnival in Flanders opened at Broadway's New Century Theatre. Critics felt the production's costumes and sets were amazing, and they had high praise for Gray's work as the musical's leading lady. Unfortunately, everything else about the production was awful, and the company packed it in after just six performances.

Gray's six performances were memorable to critics, though, and when awards season rolled around, they all remembered her. Gray won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for what remains the shortest-lived Tony-winning performance of all time.

3. Anthony Hopkins' Oscar

When Anthony Hopkins won the 1992 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs it was tough to criticize the Academy's choice to honor him. Hopkins' Lecter was one of film's most memorable villains—the American Film Institute later called Lecter the number one bad guy of all time—but Hopkins' work had another interesting feature: its brevity. Hopkins only appeared on screen for roughly 16 minutes of the film's 118-minute run time, which set a record for the least screen time of any Best Actor winner.

4. Judi Dench's Oscar

If you think Hopkins brought home the hardware for just a little bit of work, Judi Dench's 1998 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress was even more impressive. Dench won the award for her role as Queen Elizabeth I in the film Shakespeare in Love, and while Dench's portrayal was undeniably solid, there just wasn't very much of it. She appeared on screen for just under eight minutes of the two-hour movie, but we guess it never hurts to get regal for a role. Dench probably also got a boost from a not-so-stellar field of competitors, most notably Kathy Bates in Primary Colors.

5. Penelope Fitzgerald's Man Booker Prize

Much like with acting, when it comes to literature quality usually trumps quantity. The late English author Penelope Fitzgerald knew that truth as well as anyone. In 1979 she won the Man Booker Prize, the British Commonwealth's highest award for a novel, for her brief novel Offshore. Although her novel only had a scant 132 pages of text, Fitzgerald beat out longer works by shortlisted authors like V.S. Naipaul and Fay Weldon.

6. Tathagat Avatar Tulsi's Doctoral Dissertation

Last August, Indian child prodigy Tulsi wrapped up his doctorate in physics at the tender age of 21. While that number is impressive, it's par for the course with Tulsi; he finished high school at age nine. Tulsi applied to the Limca Book of Records, India's Guinness equivalent, to prove that he was the youngest PhD in India, but he also made another claim: that he had the shortest PhD thesis in the country. Tulsi's thesis "Generalizations on the quantum search algorithm" was just 33 pages long.
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If you were the foreman of the Nobel jury, to whom would you have given this year's Peace Prize?

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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]