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Tonight: Trek Nation on Science Channel

Set your DRVs for "Trek Nation" tonight (November 30, 2011) at 8pm ET/PT on the Science Channel.

If you're going to watch one documentary about Star Trek, it should be Trekkies. But if you're going to watch two, the second should be Trek Nation, premiering tonight on the Science Channel. Trek Nation puts Star Trek in context, chronicling the journey of Eugene Wesley "Rod" Roddenberry (Gene's son) to understand his father, and the show(s) Gene created.

As a documentary film, Trek Nation is a curious blend of well-executed interviews and explanation of the Star Trek phenomenon, mixed with slightly weird monologues and interviews by Rod Roddenberry, who admits he lived most of his life with only the vaguest notion that Star Trek was important. As TV, it's wonderful -- it's truly well-made, and it manages not to talk down to the viewer (which is exceedingly rare, especially with a topic that could easily be dismissed solely as wacky fan culture). As a longtime Trek fan, I saw lots of new footage here (including footage of the legendary first Trek convention which apparently has never been seen before), and lots of significant interviews with members of the Trek universe. If you like Star Trek and you have cable, this is a no-brainer.

Trek Nation has actually been in production for a long time; the principal photography appears to have been done mostly from 2003-2006, with some new material added in later (including an excellent interview with J.J. Abrams). Because much of it was done so long ago, it's often confusing -- why are we just seeing a premiere now? See, for example, Wil Wheaton's blog post from 2004 in which he discusses his interview. It's a good interview, and it's a good piece of TV, but the film nor the related PR never explains the elephant in the room: why release it so many years after it was shot? Fortunately, Airlock Alpha fills in more of that story, though only hints at the actual reasons it has taken so long for the film to come out. But that aside, let's talk about what's in the film: lots and lots of interviews about Star Trek, revelations about Gene Roddenberry, and lots of monologue by Rod Roddenberry.

Interviews About Star Trek

Trek Nation frequently shows Rod Roddenberry interviewing major figures in the science fiction or Star Trek world -- he sits down with George Lucas and J.J. Abrams, as well as his own mother, Majel Barrett (she voiced the computer on the Enterprise, and played Nurse Chapel and Lwaxana Troi), and a surprisingly comprehensive roster of Trek writing and acting talent. There are also many interviews apparently conducted by the film's director, Scott Colthorp. Frankly, Colthorp does a better job. Roddenberry repeatedly admits that he's not particularly knowledgeable about Star Trek (his story is basically that of wasted youth, at least in part due to an absent celebrity father), and fails to ask substantive questions. In many of the Rod interviews, you can see the interview subject squirm, as if asking, "Is this guy for real? How can he be asking me this?" In the Colthorp interviews, we actually see a detailed understanding of the show and nuanced questions (most notably about how the writing staff was able to deal with Gene's dictates that in the future, basic elements of the current human condition -- like greed -- should be absent); Colthorp does a set of terrific interviews with Michael Piller and Ron Moore (both TNG writers; Moore later headed BSG), and they're worth the price of admission alone.

The J.J. Abrams interview (conducted by Rod) is the capper on the film -- it comes at the end, and Abrams gives the whole production a level of perspective that's crucial. Abrams admits that he wasn't particularly a Trek fan either (like Rod) but then proceeds to explain how he worked around that, and how he managed to work on a franchise that's so beloved, despite not being a superfan. You also get to see a rather surprising interview clip from Gene Roddenberry during the Abrams interview -- I won't spoil it; it's a great reason to tune in and stick around until the end.

Revelations About Gene Roddenberry

Without spoiling it, let's just say that this film is quite honest about Gene Roddenberry's personal failings. I actually didn't know anything about him as a person before this film, and Trek Nation filled in the blanks for me. Again, this is very valuable stuff -- and to many, should be pretty surprising. Because Roddenberry died long before production began, the examination of his life comes from older interview clips, home movies (!), interviews with colleagues, and his immediate family. It even shows his last public appearance at a convention, with Rod and Barrett wheeling Gene onstage to give brief remarks, in which Gene clearly struggles to be understood after suffering a series of strokes -- it's heartbreaking stuff.

Monologue By Rod Roddenberry

The weird part of this documentary is the through-line provided by Rod Roddenberry, who sits in a planetarium and very frankly discusses his youth (think long-haired late-80's snowboarder dude), his relationship with his father (it wasn't great), his relationship with Trek (virtually nonexistent), and some work he has done in TV (also not particularly notable).

Rod frequently says that he learns things from fans that seem incredibly basic -- notably that the show is important to people, and indeed a pretty significant cultural touchstone. Of course, this makes sense when you consider Rod's position and how he grew up; he genuinely didn't know that Trek was a big deal until his father's funeral. But to a fan, it can be brutally odd -- there's a fair amount of face-palming happening in the audience as you, for example, ask yourself: how could Gene Roddenberry's son not know that Star Wars and Star Trek are considered competing franchises? And further, how could he fail to ask George Lucas anything meaningful, aside from an awkward question about whether Luke Skywalker's journey was a father/son thing. (To his credit, Lucas sizes up Rod with a quick, intense look, then settles into answering the questions he wishes had been asked.)

In Conclusion

This is an interesting, well-made documentary, both for its treatment of Gene Roddenberry and his work, and for its treatment of Rod Roddenberry. While most will tune in specifically for Trek info, there's a human angle here, a father/son narrative that rings true, and an examination of the complicated character of Gene Roddenberry. Tune in tonight at 8pm ET/PT for more.

For lots of info on Trek Nation, check out director Scott Colthorp's YouTube Channel. Here's a sample:

You may also enjoy this early trailer from 2010, apparently before it was picked up by the Science Channel.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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