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Wikimedia Commons

The 7 Longest Messages Sent into Space

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Wikimedia Commons

We might be alone in the universe. But just in case we’re not, we’ve collectively decided that every once in a while, we need to take the time to shout, “Hello? Is anybody there?” Of course, we’re always spitting out random garbage into space—radio and TV signals, mostly. But the signals on this list are intended specifically to attract aliens.

7. The Entirety of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Hey, you know what aliens probably love? Movies that show what xenophobic jerks we are! Apparently, 20th Century Fox didn’t really consider the content of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still before beaming it to Alpha Centauri, a star system only four light years away.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was sent out in December 2008, so any aliens near Alpha Centauri who were actually interested in watching it (judging by Earth numbers, that’s a decent few) should have seen it by now. The movie itself is a bit shy of two hours long, and according to the script, it’s contains almost 6500 words of dialogue. Is that enough on which to judge our civilization? We may find out in about three years, if anybody replies.

6. The Voyager Golden Records

In 1977, we launched the twin Voyager unmanned spacecrafts to collect data on gas giants (these days, one craft is in interstellar space; the other will eventually join it). Onboard the spacecraft, scientists included golden records and handy phonographs on which to play them, just in case any aliens happen to scoop them up. The records were designed by a committee led by über-awesome astronomer Carl Sagan. The records contain about five minutes’ worth of “earth sounds” (think of those relaxation tapes, like ocean waves and whale songs), 90 minutes of music from all over the world, greetings in 55 different languages, and 60 minutes of Carl Sagan’s girlfriend’s brain waves, for some reason, making the whole thing about two hours overall. There are also about 100 images, personalized messages from Earth dignitaries, and some pictographs drawn on the record covers.

5. A Doritos Commercial

It turns out there’s something way worse to send into space than a cheesy and potentially off-putting blockbuster movie, and that’s the same Doritos commercial, over and over, for six hours. The ad was broadcast 720 times in 2008 and sent 42 light years away to a star system called 47 Ursae Majoris, which is part of the Big Dipper. It will be several decades before this madness reaches its destination. 

Since the ad doesn’t feature any words (it’s simply an animation portraying some Doritos sacrificing another to a jar of Doritos salsa), it’s theoretically palatable to aliens; we’ve calculated that the few (printed) words that do appear in the commercial add up to about 11,520 words through the repetitions. Unfortunately, all of those words have to do with either Doritos or the retail transactions that would allow one to procure Doritos. That means that aliens’ first experiences with human language may be solely related to the exchange of currency for junk food.

4. 501 Social Media Messages

Apparently, 2008 was a banner year for shouting into the cosmos. In addition to Fox and Doritos, social network Bebo decided to try its hand at contacting aliens with their “A Message From Earth” program.

Although hundreds of thousands of messages were submitted, the final selections were made by user votes (which were probably for whatever was popular in 2008) and staff picks. In the end, 501 messages, including some by celebrities and politicians, were beamed out toward Gliese 581 c, an extrasolar planet 119 trillion miles (a little over 20 light years) away.

The transmission took approximately 4.5 hours. Users were also allowed to submit drawings and pictures instead of text, so there’s no way of knowing exactly how many words we spat out into the heavens—but if we go with an average of 50 per message (a totally random number), then it’s about 25,000 words.

3. 5000 Messages From Across the Internet

For Penguin UK’s 2010 release of The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe? they solicited dozens of space-oriented websites to ask their users to come up with 5000 messages to send into space, calling the promotion “Break the Eerie Silence.” The messages, which were chock full of corny “please pick me up” and MySpace-style jokes, were sent out toward the Orion Nebula, about 1350 light years away.

Since the texts were limited to 40 characters, we can easily determine that around 40,000 words were sent; we’ll be long dead before any aliens read them.

2. 25,800 Texts from Australians

Inspired by Bebo’s “A Message from Earth” campaign, COSMOS magazine and the Australian government partnered up in 2009 to create the cleverly titled “Hello From Earth,” a repository of text messages that would be transmitted by NASA to Gliese 581 d (Gliese 581 c’s big brother). Almost everything that was sent to was packaged up and beamed out. (Not everything made the cut, though; moderators made sure no one submitted stuff like “haha poop,” or whatever.) A total of 25,878 messages went out.

Since the messages were SMS length (160 characters) and we know there were 25,878 of them, we can average that out to five characters per word (which is the standard for casual writing) and arrive at about 828,000 words. Unfortunately, it’s probably a whole mess of gobbledygook that aliens won’t understand a lick of. We’ll find out in forty years—Gliese 581 c and d are both approximately 20 light years away.

1. 100,000 Craigslist Ads

In 2005, one of the most important messages in human history was beamed into space. “Free kittens to a good home.” Aliens probably love kittens, don’t you think? That’s what Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster was betting on, anyway, when the company started a campaign to send posts into outer space. All that was required of users was to check a box during posting and their ad for an old stinky couch, rusted lawnmower, or sexual proposition (they still had that board back then) was copied and beamed out to the stars.

The ads, over 100,000 in all, were sent out by a commercial enterprise called Deep Space Communications Network. We figure an average of 100 words per post, which means that over 10,000,000 words were sent to the cosmos. The ads weren’t sent to any place in particular, but an empty section of space about three light years away, which means we’d have already heard something by now if aliens were there to receive the messages. Or maybe, just maybe, we caught the ear of some hobo alien who’s out of a job and he’s slowly on his way here to see if that “secret shopper” job is still available.

For more fun word facts (like the biggest score you could ever make in Scrabble), check out The Book of Word Records, available now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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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]