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Chris Higgins

11 Wacky "Laws" Named for People

Original image
Chris Higgins

In pop culture, sometimes people have big ideas — and then we name maxims after them. Here are eleven of the good ones.

1. Sturgeon's Law

The law: "90% of everything is crap." (In some versions, "crap" is replaced with "crud.")

The story: Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon wrote a defense of sci-fi in the March 1958 issue of the sci-fi magazine Venture. He wrote, in part (emphasis added):

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other art forms.

Two trivia notes on this one. First, as you can see above, Sturgeon himself termed this "Sturgeon's Revelation," however, accidents of history (and the OED) turned it into Sturgeon's Law. There actually is a "Sturgeon's Law," and it is: "Nothing is always absolutely so." Second note — Sturgeon is the basis for Kurt Vonnegut's recurring character Kilgore Trout.

2. Godwin's Law

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The law: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."

The story: In the early days of internet chat forums (specifically Usenet newsgroups), Mike Godwin made the observation that all discussions eventually became fights in which someone was compared to the Nazis. Eighteen years after he created his now-famous law, Godwin wrote about it, stating in part:

The genesis of the idea came from my reading Primo Levi's books in the 1980s. ... It was difficult, after attempting a greater psychological understanding of why the Holocaust happened and how it was conducted, to tolerate the glib comparisons I encountered on the Internet (Usenet in those days). My sense of moral outrage at this phenomenon found an outlet after I read an article in in the Whole Earth Review about memes—viral ideas—that inspired me to create a kind of counter-measure. And so I created Godwin's Law and began to repeat it in online forums whenever I encountered a silly comparison of someone or something to Hitler or to the Nazis. ... The Law turned out to be more successful at propagating itself than I could ever have predicted.

Godwin went on to a rather awesome career as an attorney and author. I spotted him at a conference last year, and did not compare him to a Nazi even once.

3. Skitt's Law

The law: "Any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself."

The story: Skitt's Law is just one of many internet-themed corollaries of Muphry's Law, which itself states: "If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written." So horribly, horribly true. (And yes, "Muphry" is an intentional misspelling referencing Murphy's Law.) Apparently the law was first coined by G. Bryan Lord, referring to a Usenet user named Skitt.

4. Sutton's Law


The law: "Go where the money is."

The story: This one is actually based on a bogus quote, but at least it has a punchline. Bank robber Willie Sutton was asked by a reporter why he robbed banks. Sutton allegedly said, "Because that's where the money is." But he actually didn't say that at all, and in fact later wrote a book (jokingly called Where the Money Was) explaining the erroneously attributed statement and his real motivation for robbing banks — the thrill of it. In common parlance, the law means "Look for the obvious solution," making it a sort of corollary of Occam's Razor.

5. Reilly's Law of Retail Gravitation

The law: (paraphrasing) "Shoppers usually visit the largest mall in their region."

The story: William J. Reilly developed this completely serious law (including some nifty math supporting it) based on his observation that people will travel longer distances to reach a larger city. It can be used to determine the region around any given city that will draw people to that city (and thus its shopping malls) — which is useful if you're trying to figure out where to build a big new shopping mall.

6. Schneier's Law

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The law: "Any person can invent a security system so clever that she or he can't think of how to break it."

The story: Author Cory Doctorow coined the law in a speech about Digital Rights Management (DRM) and invoked the name of Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer who advocates peer review for cryptography. Doctorow continued his speech:

... This means that the only experimental methodology for discovering if you've made mistakes in your cipher is to tell all the smart people you can about it and ask them to think of ways to break it. Without this critical step, you'll eventually end up living in a fool's paradise, where your attacker has broken your cipher ages ago and is quietly decrypting all her intercepts of your messages, snickering at you.

7. Betteridge's Law of Headlines

The law: "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."

The story: Journalist Ian Betteridge noted that many headlines are written as bogus questions, the answer to which is pretty much always "no." (I'll admit, I have written question-headlines myself.) Betteridge wrote a blog post (salty language warning) in 2009 explaining the issue. Here's a snippet regarding a story bearing the headline "Did Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?" I have bleeped one word below:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no”. The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bulls**t, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.

8. Brooks' Law

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The law: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later."

The story: Fred Brooks managed massive software projects (including the development of OS/360) for IBM, and wrote a 1975 book based on his experience called The Mythical Man-Month. His most widely-quoted observation was that when a software project was late, throwing more people at the project didn't help — in fact, it made the situation worse because the existing team had to explain everything to the new team members, thus wasting time on communication overhead. (It's more complicated than that, but that's the gist.) His observation has gone on to influence generations of project managers, myself included. Only a few of us, myself included, actually read the book.

9. Clarke's Third Law

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The law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

The story: Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws, which were as follows:

  • 1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  • 2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • 3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

After stating his Third Law in his essay collection Profiles of the Future, Clarke wrote: "As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there."

10. Hanlon's Razor

The law: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

The story: A play on Occam's Razor, attributed to Robert J. Hanlon. It may actually be attributable to science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in his story Logic of Empire: "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity." Even prior to Heinlein's phrase, the concept appears all over the place.

11. Hofstadter's Law

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The law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law."

The story: This recursive law appeared in Douglas Hofstadter's 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It came up in the context of programming computers to play chess, in which a chess-winning computer seemed perennially about "ten years" in the future. Hofstadter wrote:

"In the early days of computer chess, people used to estimate that it would be ten years until a computer (or program) was world champion. But after ten years had passed, it seemed that the day a computer would become world champion was still more than ten years away."

Closely related is Parkinson's Law, which states: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]