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xkcd: the exclusive interview

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A fan of Randall Munroe's brilliant webcomic xkcd? Well, today we've got an exclusive interview with the stickmeister himself, just in time for the release of his first book: Volume 0 recently published by our friends over Plus, we're going to give you a chance to win a free copy of the book! (stick around and see details at the end of the post) But first, the interview...

DI: For the ignorant among us, or those too lazy to check out your Web site: what's the deal with xkcd? What's it stand for and why do you insist on making me feel like a moron who can't figure out how to pronounce it?

RM: I can't pronounce it either, although I once saw someone argue that linguistically, each letter is silent. As for where it came from, sometime back in 1999 I picked a set of random letters to which to stake my claim, so that it would always mean what I wanted and nothing else. So I wanted something with no pronunciation, something that didn't make an acronym, and which didn't look like any other word. And something which was short, so I could type it fast!

DI: I heard before you became Digg and Reddit's most famous cartoonist, you were working on robots at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. Um, honestly?

RM: Yup! But it's not nearly as dramatic as it sounds. I spent one summer interning working on a student-run virtual reality project, and was hired the next year to work on another section of the base on a project building a little R2-D2-sized robot that was serving as a testbed/demo platform for some technologies other groups were working on. It was pretty standard programming work, and I was only there a year or so before leaving to do xkcd full time.

DI: I don't know how much you know about us _flosser, but we're on a mission to take over the blogosphere. How much do we have to pay you to put our URL or some branded rat-a-tat in your next comic?

RM: Oh, I'm not sure you want that. I did a comic early on about Cory Doctorow wearing a red cape and goggles while he blogs, and I don't think he'll ever live the image down.

breadpig-blue-1DI: Breadpig has never published a book before, so this is quite unusual. Talk a little bit about how it all came about.

RM: Really, we weren't looking for a publisher. The normal role of a publisher is to give you an advance, oversee the distribution of your book, negotiate with retailers, and take most of the profit. Since the main potential readership for an xkcd collection is already connected to me through my site, I wasn't looking for bookstore distribution, so I wasn't even sure I needed a publisher at all. My business partner, Derek, was talking with my friend Alexis [Ohanian] about what we'd want in a book, and Alexis thought he and Breadpig could fill the reduced role pretty well (finding printers and scheduling a basic tour). The idea sounded good to me, so we went with it.

DI: Is it true that some of the proceeds go to charity?

RM: A portion of the proceeds went to Room to Read, which was suggested by Alexis. It's a great charity which builds schools in countries where they're needed. The world's got a lot of problems and I sure don't have the answers, but there's a great Aristotle quote that's something like, "All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth." So education is as good a place to start as any.

DI: People often ask songwriters, "Which comes first? The music or the words?" Likewise, I wonder: Which comes first for you? The setup/scene or the punchline?

RM: It really goes both ways! A lot of the time, when a comic is inspired by real life, it's the setup that comes first. Someone makes fun of me, and days later I finally come up with a clever retort, and since it's too late to reply I turn that into a comic. But sometimes I have an idea and I work for a while to figure out how to lead up to it. And occasionally, like in comic #77, I draw a picture I like and then try to figure out a comic to go around it.

DI: Because your characters rarely have distinguishing characteristics--one of the things I love about them, btw--when you're writing them, are you thinking: "Oh, this is a gag THIS character would say" rather than "Oh, this is a gag THAT character would say"? Or are the generic-looking characters more or less the same person in your mind?

RM: The generic-looking characters don't have particularly consistent identities, and from looking carefully at comics it's clear there are several of each. But I try to make sure the focus is on the conversation or the activities and not on trying to figure out how the character who's talking fits into previous strips.

DI: What are some of your favorite comics?

RM: I read comics by some of my friends pretty regularly -- among many others, there's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, by Zach Weiner, Jeph Jacques's Questionable Content, A Softer World by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne, and Cyanide and Happiness, which is by four or eight different very nice guys. A couple of comics I really like have ended -- Men in Hats by Aaron Farber and Minus by Ryan Armand. And one of my favorite comics ended some time ago but restarted -- Buttercup Festival, by David Troupes.

DI: Besides other comics, where do you, er, draw inspiration from?

RM: Arguments with my friends, when we're competing to try to be as clever as possible. That, and my ongoing frustrations trying to get various pieces of software to work properly. The problems I manage to create are notorious for their absurdity -- some of my sysadmin friends spend a lot of time doing double-takes. I frequently hear things like, "how did you manage to break that?"

DI: If you could sit down and have lunch with any comic strip character in history, who would it be and what would you want to know?

RM: If we're limited specifically to comic strips, I think lunch with Huey from The Boondocks would be a lot of fun. We could be angry, nerdy, and self-righteous about things for a while, and then heckle politicians and bad movies together. But if we can broaden the constraints slightly, I'd pick Wile E. Coyote; I desperately want to give him a tutorial on basic engineering and physics vis-a-vis Roadrunner-catching.

Win a copy of the new xkcd book!

Here's how:

Mosey on over to the xkcd store. Poke around! Then, find the missing word in this tagline: A webstore of romance, sarcasm, ____ and language.

Next, head over Breadpig's blog. Answer the questions you find there and send your answers, along with the missing word from the tagline, to:

Everyone with the right answers is automatically entered into a drawing for the book. It's that simple.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]