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12 of Stephen Fry's Wise, Witty Quotations

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Stephen Fry is an actor, writer, poet, TV host, narrator, and for all I know a terrific cook -- the man is so prolific he has a Wikipedia page devoted simply to listing his works. Through all of his work he weaves threads of good humor, keen intellect, and a tremendously open attitude about his own life: the result is a tapestry of wit that is eminently quotable, and deserving of careful reading. Below, I've collected my favorite Fry quotations.

1. On Incuriosity

"The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is."

From The Fry Chronicles (Kindle Locations 1265-1266).

2. On Kindles

"This is the point. One technology doesn't replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators."

From Fry's Twitter account.

3. On Cultural Diversity

"...[L]ook at the kind of people who most object to the childishness and cheapness of celebrity culture. Does one really want to side with such apoplectic and bombastic bores? I should know, I often catch myself being one, and it isn't pretty. I will defend the absolute value of Mozart over Miley Cyrus, of course I will, but we should be wary of false dichotomies. You do not have to choose between one or the other. You can have both. The human cultural jungle should be as varied and plural as the Amazonian rainforest. We are all richer for biodiversity. We may decide that a puma is worth more to us than a caterpillar, but surely we can agree that the habitat is all the better for being able to sustain each. Monocultures are uninhabitably dull and end as deserts."

From The Fry Chronicles (Kindle Locations 3852-3857).

4. On Libraries

"What's great about them is that anybody can go into them and find a book and borrow it free of charge and read it. They don't have to steal it from a bookshop. ... You know when you're young, you're growing up, they're almost sexually exciting places because books are powerhouses of knowledge, and therefore they're kind of slightly dark and dangerous. You see books that kind of make you go 'Oh!'"

From Fry's March 2001 appearance on Room 101.

5. On New Age Philosophy

When asked his opinion about a Dream Catcher:

"The key word for me (my spleen isn't really big enough to explode with all the splenetic juices of fury that drive me when I consider this), but the real key word that triggers my rage is the word 'energy', when people start talking about it in terms of negative or positive types. For instance, 'there's very negative energy in here.' What are you talking about? What do you mean? I mean, let's think about it. What does energy mean? Well, we know what it means: energy from petrol when it's burned, it moves the car. 'This room has positive energy' — well, where the f***'s it going then? It's not moving. It's covering up such woolly thinking, such pathetic nonsense.

"And astrology: most people will say of astrology, 'Well, it's harmless fun.' And I should say that for 80% of the cases it probably is harmless fun, but there's a strong way in which it isn't harmless. One, because it is so anti-science. You will hear things like, 'Science doesn't know everything.' Well, of course science doesn't know everything. But, because science doesn't know everything, it doesn't mean that science knows nothing. Science knows enough for us to be watched by a few million people now on television, for these lights to be working, for quite extraordinary miracles to have taken place in terms of the harnessing of the physical world and our dim approaches towards understanding it. And as Wittgenstein quite rightly said, 'When we understand every single secret of the universe, there will still be left the eternal mystery of the human heart.'"

From Fry's March 2001 appearance on Room 101.

Stephen Fry on a couch
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6. On Smoking

"I think I have always linked smoking and sex. Maybe this is where I have been going wrong all my life."

From The Fry Chronicles (Kindle Locations 439-440).

7. On Clichés

"It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me."

From Moab Is My Washpot (p. 113).

8. On His Singing Voice

"I have to mime at parties when everyone sings 'Happy Birthday.' ... mime or mumble and rumble and growl and grunt so deep that only moles, manta rays and mushrooms can hear me.

"I'm not even tone deaf, that's the arse-mothering, f***-nosed, bugger-sucking wank of the thing."

(Note: this bit appears below the heading "I Can't F***ing Join In" and above the heading "I'm Not Even Tone F***ing Deaf.")

From Moab Is My Washpot (pp. 85-86).

9. On Poetry and Laziness

"You cannot work too hard at poetry. People are bad at it not because they have tin ears, but because they simply don't have the faintest idea how much work goes into it. It's not as if you're ordering a pizza or doing something that requires direct communication in a very banal way. But it seems these days the only people who spend time over things are retired people and prisoners. We bolt things, untasted.

"It's so easy to say, 'That'll do.' Everyone's in a hurry. People are intellectually lazy, morally lazy, ethically lazy...

"... When people get angry with a traffic warden they don't stop and think what it would be like to be a traffic warden or how annoying it would be if people could park wherever they liked. People talk lazily about how hypocritical politicians are. But everyone is. On the one hand we hate that petrol is expensive and on the other we go on about global warming. We abrogate the responsibility for thought and moral decisions onto others and then have the luxury of saying it's not good enough."

From Fry's interview with The Daily Telegraph promoting his book The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within.

10. On Critics

Stephen Fry"It may be true that critics perform a service, that actors and writers and artists need their egos deflating, that the public needs to be advised about how, where and when to spend their money on artistic activities, that ‘standards’ must be maintained. All the foregoing may be fine and convincing reasons for the existence of critics. The point is that no one would volunteer for this dreadful trade but the kind of worthless and embittered offal that we, by and large, get. What decent person would want to spend a life picking and caviling? Picture this scene. A critic arrives at the gates of heaven. ‘And what did you do?’ asks Saint Peter. ‘Well’, says the dead soul. ‘I criticized things’. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘You know, other people wrote things, performed things, painted things and I said stuff like, “thin and unconvincing”, “turgid and uninspired”, “competent and serviceable,”...you know'."


Photo: Getty Images. Quotation from Paperweight, via wongaBlog.

11. On Drugs and Music

"LSD reveals the whatness of things, their quiddity, their essence. The wateriness of water is suddenly revealed to you, the carpetness of carpets, the woodness of wood, the yellowness of yellow, the fingernailness of fingernails, the allness of all, the nothingness of all, the allness of nothing. For me music gives access to every one of these essences of existence, but at a fraction of the social or financial cost of a drug and without the need to cry “Wow!” all the time, which is one of LSD's most distressing and least endearing side-effects."

From Moab Is My Washpot (pp. 83-84). Random House Inc Clients. Kindle Edition.

12. On Believing in Oneself

"I used many times to touch my own chest and feel, under its asthmatic quiver, the engine of the heart and lungs and blood and feel amazed at what I sensed was the enormity of the power I possessed. Not magical power, not all that Carrie teenage telekinetic wank, but real power. The power simply to go on, the power to endure, that is power enough, but I felt I had also the power to create, to add, to delight, to amaze and to transform. Yet I was unwanted, rejected and unthought of. My mother, yes, she believed in me, but everybody's mother believes in them. No one else believed in me.

"Principally of course—oh how one sees that now—myself. Principally, I did not believe in me. I believed in ghosts more than I believed in me, and take my word for it, I never believed in ghosts, I'm far too spiritual and emotional and passionate to believe in the supernatural."

From Moab Is My Washpot (p. 381).

Big exciting note: Next Wednesday is 12-12-12. To celebrate, we're planning 24 (!) 12-lists, which we'll post 12 minutes past every hour, starting at 12:12am. Consider this a little tease.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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