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Required Viewing: "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" 70-min Critique

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Over the past week, I've been told over and over to watch this series of videos, but resisted until the weekend. I mean, how could it truly be so awesome? I don't care about Star Wars, why would I find this funny? 70 minutes? How could I find time for this? I can now only regret those long days that I deprived myself of the wonderousness of this bizarre, hilariously nerdy "review" of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. I debated posting it here because it does use some spicy language (within ten seconds, the first f-bomb is dropped), but guys, come on. You need to watch this. You'll know within the first few minutes whether it's your kind of thing. And if it is, you've got SEVENTY MINUTES OF IT.

Let me break it down for you: this dude makes movie reviews and puts them up on YouTube. He's been doing it for a while (I strongly recommend his 2008 review of Star Trek: Generations, which came roughly 14 years after the film was released). Through the reviews, you see his analysis of each movie's particular failings, including detailed analyses of plot holes and explanations of how to make film -- in case George Lucas is watching.

Meanwhile, you realize that the reviewer is also playing a character, and he reveals bits of his character within each review. (Talking about various deceased family members, etc.) At various points the review falls off the rails entirely, as in Part 2 (below) when the reviewer rants about his "medications" and then offers to mail pizza rolls to anyone who leaves a comment on "this web zone." It's brilliant. Funny, often inappropriate, genuinely insightful -- what more could you want from a web video?

Tip: if you are not immediately hooked, wait at least until he says "protagonist" for the second or third time. Trust me. If you get through all seven parts, maybe you can get yourself a pizza roll.

Part 1

"Really, how hard could it be to screw up? It's like screwing up mashed potatoes: you boil the water, pour the packet...."

Part 2

"It's almost mind-boggling how complex the awfulness is."

Part 3

"Now this is where it gets complex, my lovelies. So I think this is what happened -- I'm not sure -- but Palpatine wanted to create a crisis on Naboo so that the naive young queen would propose a vote of No Confidence for Chancellor Velorum. This would lead to Palpatine getting elected in his place, right? Like, I mean, that's the plot? I think?" Also, THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

Part 4

"Invasion...of boring!"

Part 5

"If you ask me, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi should have been combined into one character, called Obi-Wan Kenobi."

Part 6

"Please, God, make it stop, make it end." ... "So we're back to the three guys we know nothing about fighting each other in a scene we have no interest in. ... Hey, maybe this'll finally get good! Maybe I'll get emotionally involved!"

Part 7

"The Ending Multiplication Effect."

Did You Watch Them All?

If you want a pizza roll, make a comment on this web zone. I can't promise anything about the pizza rolls, I'm just saying make a comment and then go buy yourself a pizza roll.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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