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Lectures for a New Year: Parrots, the Universe, and Everything

Today I've got a doozy of a lecture for you. I present what is likely Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams's last public appearance -- he died of a heart attack on May 11, 2001, mere days after this talk at UC San Diego was filmed. This is a man in the prime of his life, about to be struck down. And he is cracking wise throughout, telling truly wonderful, engaging stories, but with a shattering message: just as our world is being pulled together by information technology, we are destroying species faster than ever before (unless you count, as he says, the points at which Earth has been hit by asteroids).

In the lecture, Adams recounts his hilarious adventures traveling the world studying endangered wildlife, learning about the odd, endearing lives of vanishing species...and what animal extinction means for the lives of humans. The talk was given about a decade after Adams published his favorite book, Last Chance to See. He took to the stage eleven years after the book was released, to tell its story -- this was a lecture of love, not promoting a hot new book. As Adams says in his introduction: "Virtually every author I know, their own favorite book is the one that sold the least."

Even if you're a fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide, you may not have read Adams's other work, or even heard of it. (I haven't read Last Chance to See and have only the vaguest familiarity with his Dirk Gently novels.) This lecture will convince you that the man's most under-appreciated book is well worth a read.

Topics: a monkey looking at a lemur, advances in twig technology, dragons, snakes, the Venom Fridge, forgetting how to fly, the Blue-footed Booby, the Friendship Store, condoms for recording dolphins, humans, and Carl Sagan.

Not covered: life, the universe, and everything.

For: anyone interested in nature, people who like jokes, fans of Douglas Adams, anyone who enjoys a good yarn about the natural world, and those who are not scandalized by a fleeting f-bomb or two.

Representative quote:

So just imagine if you will, this male Kakapo sitting up here, making all this booming noise which, if there's a female out there--which there probably isn't--and if she likes the sound of this booming--which she probably doesn't--then she can't find the person who's making it! (Laughter.) But supposing she does, supposing she's out there--but she probably isn't--she likes the sound of this booming--she probably doesn't--supposing that she can find him--which she probably can't--she will then only consent to mate if the Podocarpus tree is in fruit! (Laughter.)

Now we've all had relationships like that ... (Laughter.) (Applause.)

Further Reading

The book is Last Chance to See, and it was made into a BBC 2 series featuring Stephen Fry. There was also a BBC Radio series in 1989, which is now available online for free...if you're in the UK.

If you're unfamiliar with Adams (which I find unlikely), check out his website, which notes that there is a Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture series. Hmm, I'll have to check that out. See also, his Wikipedia entry. Oh, and if you're going to be in London on March 11, 2012, there's a 60th birthday celebration for DNA!

Transcript

A complete transcript is available. The YouTube video does not have proper closed captions.

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we'll check it out!

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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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