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Did Dr. Watson Really Write Sherlock Holmes?

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A few years ago, a poll found that 58 percent of British teenagers thought Sherlock Holmes was a real person (meanwhile, 47 percent thought that Richard the Lionheart was not). That may be just a sad statement on the education system, but that doesn’t mean those kids are alone. There’s actually a whole group of people who enjoy the theory that Sherlock Holmes – or at least sidekick John Watson -- was real.


The explanation is simple: Dr. Watson chronicled the work of the London detective Sherlock Holmes and their relationship. Arthur Conan Doyle? He was Watson’s literary agent and helped bring the stories to The Strand magazine and other outlets.

Of course, Doyle wasn’t just an agent. He claims to have based the Holmes character off of his former teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, who was said to have similarly impressive deductive powers. The Holmes pieces, starting with 1887’s “A Study in Scarlet,” quickly became his most famous works, overshadowing anything else he wrote (a fact that frustrated Doyle and led to his decision to "kill" Holmes in "The Final Problem"). Eventually, Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels featuring Holmes across 40 years.

However, Doyle’s presence creates another problem for the Holmesians who believe in the canon. The author was never one to stick closely to his earlier works and said on many occasions that he wouldn’t let the canon stand in the way of a good story. That means dates don't line up and scholars have had trouble putting the cases in chronological order. Likewise, characters meet and re-meet, physical descriptions change and even personality traits disappear or shift as needed.

For example, in several stories Holmes refuses to take a reward, even claiming that “my profession is my reward.” But in other cases, such as “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” he takes as much 4,000 pounds. This seeming inconsistency has been brushed off with a simple explanation: Holmes only accepts money from wealthy clients when he needs it.

The “great game” of studying the Holmes canon began with Ronald Knox, who sought to apply Holmes’ own methods on the canon in his essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.” In it, he tackles the exact order and date of the canon mysteries, Holmes' ever-shifting routine of investigation and even the flaws in Watson's personal history. Knox even offers up an explanation of the inconsistencies in Watson's work:

"I believed that all the stories were written by Watson, but whereas the genuine cycle actually happened, the spurious adventures are the lucubrations of his own unaided invention. Surely we may reconstruct the facts thus."

Interestingly, the idea of believing in canon and acknowledging the author can be applied outside of the Holmes literature. For example, TVTropes.org explains how Doylists and Watsonians exist in TV fandom: a Doylist would understand that an actor had to be recast, while a Watsonian would infer that the character in question had gotten plastic surgery to change his or her appearance.

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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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