Original image

THAT IS ALL, John Hodgman's Final Book of Complete World Knowledge

Original image

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez.

John Hodgman's third and final book of complete world knowledge, That is All, hits bookstore shelves today, 11/1/11. I hope you'll buy a copy, because you'll need it when Ragnarok occurs.

Oh, You Haven't Heard of Ragnarok?

That is All is predicated on the premise (ahem, CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE) that, starting quite soon, we will enter a pre-apocalyptic period leading up to the end of the world, or to be more specific, Hodgman's "COMING TOTAL ULTRACOLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION AND END OF HUMAN HISTORY," but which may conveniently be referred to using the Norse term Ragnarok. You may think this is a joke, but it is deadly serious -- this really is the end, because indeed, Hodgman has finally decided to write about topics including WINE and SPORTS, which were dismissed in his previous volumes. The end is nigh, and it has a bouquet with hints of fruit, albuterol, and jokes. Here's a sample from early in the book (page 642) that precedes a section entitled HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN WINE IN A TOILET, EVEN IF YOU ARE NOT IN PRISON:

Were You Aware of It? "Legalize It"

Though people have been making their own wine at home and in prison for millennia, the practice was outlawed in the United States as part of PROHIBITION--that brief, unfortunate period in American history when Steve Buscemi was a powerful sex symbol.

In 1978, however, Jimmy Carter knew the country needed to get drunk and so signed HR 1337 ("House Resolution LEET") legalizing the making of wine for personal use, as well as beer, hard cider, and HOME FOUR LOKO.

But many are not aware that Carter additionally passed HR U83R 1337, legalizing the home manufacture of RAW MILK CHEESES, CUBAN CIGARS, ABSINTHE, FUGU PUFFER FISH, MARIJUANA CIGARETTES, PEYOTE PATCHES, and PRUNO aka "PRISON TOILET WINE."

The result was an INTENSE MELLOWING of the U.S. population, with most football teams being replaced by wine bars,255 increased funding of pottery classes and pan flute in schools, and a wide swath of New Mexico being transformed into a NATIONAL CONVERSATION PIT. This in turn led to a counterintuitive economic boom, especially once the famous inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil invented the HEMP ENGINE, making American-grown marijuana the most important energy source on the planet.


However, while it remains illegal in this time sphere to make Pruno, that does not mean it is NOT INCREDIBLY EASY.

255. Baseball remained, but under the regime of new commissioner Dock Ellis, it was largely played by freelance magazine writers.

From this brief snippet, you get a taste of what there is for you in That is All, which is basically tons of jokes, some of which are already somewhat dated (by 2015, how many people will know what Four Loko was?) and many of which will lead to some heavy Googling (for example, to learn more about George Plimpton or leetspeak or The Singularity). The writing is refreshingly bite-sized, such that you can literally open the book to any page, read something, have a chuckle, and move on. Also, like the previous volume, each page includes a page-a-day calendar at the top -- except this one predicts the future, through the end of the world (it's called TODAY IN RAGNAROK). You have roughly a year left; you might as well enjoy it, one page at a time.

Here are two samples of the page-a-day calendar, from very early in the book:

December 26, 2011

Penguin Audio releases the Book of Revelation as narrated by Nick Nolte. It becomes an enormous bestseller.

December 27, 2011

Nick Nolte appears on The View to promote the Book of Revelation. When Joy Behar asks him what he thinks of all the 2012 end-time theories, Nick Nolte pulls back his beard and reveals his writhing second beard of feathered snakes. "These weren't here last year," he says. "What does THAT tell you?"

On Writing as Someone Other Than Yourself, But Using Your Own Name

Over the course of his three books of complete world knowledge, we've seen Hodgman develop an eponymous character, a faux-Hodgman who is the narrator of these books. In the first book of fake trivia (I'm sorry, "complete world knowledge"), The Areas of My Expertise, Hodgman refers to himself as a "former professional literary agent" (which is true) and the joke is that he's writing from a position of virtually no authority, but in an authoritative voice. (My apologies for explaining the joke, but sometimes you have to be explicit about these things.) You have to remember that at the time, Hodgman was a reasonably successful freelance writer (he wrote the "Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent" column for McSweeney's), host of the Little Gray Book lectures, and contributor to This American Life...but he wasn't exactly famous. So his position-of-no-real-authority character no longer made sense when it was time to write his second book, More Information Than You Require -- by that time, Hodgman was an "author and famous minor television personality" who was moderately well-known for his acting work in the "I'm a Mac" ads (he played the PC), as "Resident Expert" on The Daily Show, and lots of other gigs (including roles in Baby Momma, Flight of the Conchords, and most recently Bored to Death), and his first book had become a bestseller, largely due to a major sales boost after his killer first appearance on The Daily Show. So in the second book, Hodgman wrote from the perspective of a writer and actor whose fame was moderate, fleeting, possibly obtained by accident, but nevertheless had afforded him some form of status. In this final book of world knowledge, That is All, Hodgman enters his third act as "the deranged millionaire," a character who has experienced sincere wealth and status (the guy even met the president), but is now considering the possible end of it all -- the end of his status, the end of his acting career, the end of his relevance, and indeed THE END OF THE WORLD.

To make things even more complicated, Hodgman has actually been performing (with They Might Be Giants) as "The Deranged Millionaire" since 2005, long before he actually became either a millionaire or deranged.

As a "surprisingly successful freelance writer," I can personally identify with only the first persona Hodgman evokes, as I routinely have the opportunity (even here, now, in these words that I am currently writing) to reach an audience of "a lot of people" and feel that I must demonstrate some kind of expert status in my field. Like Hodgman, I fully expect to parlay this into some kind of mad bestselling romp ending in Ragnarok. Just you wait.

On Books of Lists

Hodgman's trilogy of complete world knowledge owes a lot to The Book of Lists (as Hodgman has discussed in interviews). As part of my job here at mental_floss, I routinely write lists, and indeed we're coming out with our own book of lists quite soon now. Hodgman has spent so much time perfecting the art of list-writing that I have to hand it to him -- this is top-notch listology. An example (from page 808):


• Jormungandr, the World Serpent, rises from the deep.

• Death of the Norse god Balder.

• The ravenous moveable forest awakens and feasts on blood.

• Nick Nolte reads the Book of Revelations.

• The Ten-Day Night falls.

• The lost Gumstone is found.

• Temperatures between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

• Humidity of about 60 percent.

• Winds out of the south, southeast.

This list is followed by a list of 700 "Ancient and Unlistable Ones." Yes, seven hundred. Due to clever layout, this only takes 20 pages and contains something like a thousand jokes (each name is itself a joke and there are countless meta-jokes inserted into the list by virtue of putting the joke-names in order).

Complete World Knowledge is Not Available in Ebook Format

The formatting of Hodgman's three books, with their tables, charts, images, and page-a-day calendar, makes them nearly impossible to translate into ebook format. Hodgman's website says: "An ELECTRONIC edition is something we are working on. As soon as we know how to make a PAGE-A-DAY CALENDAR on a PAGELESS DEVICE, we will get back to you." None of Hodgman's books are currently available as ebooks, which I actually find kind of satisfying. It's nice to know that these books are written to be books: physical, designed objects with a structure to them that means something (part of that structure being that you can flip easily to a random page -- something that's not super easy on most e-readers). Those of us who relish our print books and rage against the dying of the paper book format may take some satisfaction in knowing that these books currently cannot be digital. Perhaps someday someone will make an ebook of complete world knowledge -- but not now.

Interestingly, in his first book of complete world knowledge (way back in the stone ages of 2005), Hodgman suggested that the book itself contained a camera that would watch you as you read the book. This is now technically feasible on, for example, an iPad: it has a camera facing the reader. Oh boy. Good thing they're still working out the kinks on that ebook business.

The Audiobooks of Complete World Knowledge

The glory of the audiobooks of Hodgman's work is nearly impossible to describe. Frankly, the audiobooks of The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require are actually more fun than the physical books. They're packed with music, guest stars, and weirdly entertaining ways of cramming the books' unusual elements into audio form (this generally involves converting charts into conversations, reading tables using a mixture of female and male narration, along with a bell's chime to indicate the end of a row). Because Hodgman is such an excellent reader and performer, he makes the audiobooks so indelible that it becomes impossible to read the print books without hearing his narration. There is not yet an audiobook for That is All, but you can get the first two books on CD (or via Audible, or iTunes, or whatever) and enjoy a heck of a romp: The Areas of My Expertise (Amazon/CD) and More Information Than You Require (Amazon/CD). These are my favorite audiobooks ever, and that's saying something -- they're even better than the Jim Dale narration of Harry Potter. Yes, they're THAT GOOD.

Hodgman's website notes: "An AUDIOBOOK edition will be recorded SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE, but not before January of 2012."

Where to See & Buy Hodgman

He's on book tour, many dates featuring guest stars. If you can get to one with David Rees, he'll professionally sharpen a pencil for you! (Sorry, I had to get that in there. I blurbed the man's book, how else am I supposed to buzz-market my favorite pencil-sharpener?) You may also devote yourself to Hodgman's Tumblr, Twitter, or his excellent podcast. To buy his latest book, try Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Powell's (also available signed!), or your local book retailer.

You may also enjoy this book trailer:

The End

It's fitting that That is All ends with a quote by Carl Sagan. Although the book is primarily jokes, there is a quality to Hodgman's writing that seems truly grateful for the opportunity to write a trilogy of complete world knowledge and become a deranged millionaire, famous minor television personality, and even former professional literary agent. In the greater scheme of things, Hodgman is aware that everything is fleeting -- youth, and fame, and success in writing books of fake trivia -- and thus, at its core, this is a book about the end of everything. With jokes. That is all.

Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated to write this review. I do have a proprietary interest in surviving Ragnarok, though, so I felt it prudent to review early galleys with great attention.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]