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The Late Movies: Carl Sagan Interviewed By Ted Turner (!)

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In this 1989 CNN interview, Ted Turner interviews Carl Sagan on the environment, nuclear warfare, space, time travel, SETI, and other topics. Turner frequently seems to be out of his depth during this interview (as in part four, when he suggests that time travel to "live with the Indians" might be a good solution for modern-day environmental problems). Regardless, this is an interesting discussion, largely because of Sagan's calm, intelligent discourse. According to Wikipedia, this was supposed to be the fourteenth episode of Cosmos:

Some versions of the series including the first North American home video release included a specially made 14th episode, which consisted of an hour-long interview between Sagan and Ted Turner, in which the two discussed the series and new discoveries in the years since its first broadcast. This unique episode was not included in the DVD release.

So tonight, sit back and watch what was supposed to be the final installment of Cosmos -- albeit many years after the original, and without any of the wonderful production and theatricality of the original series.

Part 1 - Nuclear Weapons

While other topics are discussed, this is primarily about nuclear weapons and deterrence.

Sagan: "The professed function of the nuclear weapons on each side is to prevent the other side from using their nuclear weapons. If that's all it is, then we've gotta ask: how many nuclear weapons do you need to do that? ... You probably don't need more weapons than what's required to destroy every city on earth. There's only 2,300 cities. So, the United States, by that criteria, only needs 2,300 nuclear weapons -- well, we've got more than 25,000!"

Turner: "But not all those cities are our enemies!"

Sagan: "Of course not! A lot of those are our own cities!"

Part 2 - Nuclear Winter and the Environment

Turner: "Could you bring us up-to-date on [nuclear winter]?"

Sagan: (some minutes later) "We're in very bad trouble if we don't understand the planet we're trying to save."

Part 3 - Space & Time Travel

Sagan: "No other planet in the solar system is a suitable home for human beings; it's this world or nothing. That's a very powerful perception."

Turner: (some minutes later) "Are you a Socialist?"

Part 4 - The Environment, Time Travel, SETI, & Education

Turner: "If the world is gonna be environmentally degraded, you could take a few friends of yours and we could go back in the past and try and see if we couldn't live with the Indians a couple hundred years ago, before the white man came."

Sagan: "The trouble is that to do that, you need such an advanced technology that -- with that technology, you could solve our problem, or at least solve us. We might be more the problem than the technology."

Part 5 - Where Did We Come From, SDI, & Politics

Sagan: "I would love to believe that there was a God who made us, who's looking out for us, who's taking care of us, because we're in such a mess. [...] Then we would be relieved of the responsibility of taking care of ourselves. [...] But that does not seem to be the case; we have to solve our own problems."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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