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NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos

NOVA's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" premieres tonight, November 2, at 9pm ET/PT on most PBS stations. Recommended for: families who aren't quite sure what relativity is, but want to find out.

Starting tonight, enjoy the four-hour series The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on physicist Brian Greene's breakthrough book. I've previewed the first episode of the show, and found it a worthy companion to the book, especially for those who aren't particularly up on physics in general: do you know what Einstein's theory of relativity really is? How about the Higgs Field (and that elusive Higgs boson) -- do you know what that actually is? How about dark energy, or the notion that the universe might be a holographic projection of a 2D version of itself? All of these are discussed in the first episode (airing tonight), which deals with the nature of "space" -- what is space, when you remove all the "stuff" (atoms and such), and how does it work? In a sense, the show is sort of "Physics for Dummies" in that it presents easily understandable metaphors for all of these questions (except the hologram thing, which still seems bonkers), and helps you to understand how physicists have thought about space over hundreds of years.

The only downside to the show is Brian Greene himself, as a host -- he doesn't quite have the spark of a Carl Sagan or a Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's good at explaining what he's talking about (and indeed he is accessible to a fault -- he often repeats simple concepts), but somehow the first hour seems a little flat -- at times I found myself wondering who the audience was supposed to be, because the show mixed extremely simple ideas (like "is space empty or not") with mind-blowingly complex ones (the universe is a hologram, projected from a 2D version of itself). In the middle there is a very easy-to-follow discussion of what Einstein really contributed to physics, and a good discussion of why space, time, and the speed of light are fundamentally kind of weird. The trick is, at times the material appears pointed at middle school students, at others it's very heady stuff.

Gather the Family Around

Because of this mixed-audience issue, I think this series makes sense for families. I can see some elementary school kids engaging with this material, though middle and high school ages seem more appropriate. There is nothing risque or dangerous in the material, and it's presented in a very friendly, engaging format. The production value is insanely high (lots of computer graphics and 3D modeling, even in static interview shots), which should make even the boring bits (or stuff that's over young kids' heads) fun to watch. And you might walk away saying, "Huh, I kinda actually do get why Einstein was a big deal." Seems worth your time, eh? Here's another video of Brian Greene introducing the series:

The first episode airs tonight, and subsequent episodes air weekly. There's more information on the Fabric of Cosmos website.

Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated to do this review. I'm a lifelong fan of NOVA, though!

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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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