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27 Things We’ve Learned From John Green on YouTube

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Millions of viewers can call themselves smarter for having watched John Green’s awesome YouTube escapades on such shows as Vlogbrothers, Crash Course, and our own mental_floss video series. In honor of his outstanding service to trivia buffs everywhere, here are 27 of the most remarkable tidbits John has shared with us over the years.

1. The Metal Thing that Attaches Erasers to Pencils is Called the “Ferrule.”

This isn’t to be confused with the term for wild felines, as John quickly reminds us.

2. James Buchanan’s Nickname was “The Old Public Functionary.”

Apparently, not every presidential nickname has to roll off the tongue.

3. YouTubers Upload Over 864,000 Hours Worth of Content Per Day.

One mental_floss viewer wanted to know how long it would take to watch every single video that’s been posted on YouTube—a process John claimed “would take significantly longer than forever.”

4. Most of us Use the Word “Acronym” Incorrectly.

To be considered a proper acronym, an abbreviation must be pronounceable as a word. Ergo, while N.A.T.O. (the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization”) is a proper acronym, whenever you text “O.M.G.” (“Oh My God”), you’re actually using something called an “initialism.”

5. Baby Potato Beetles Have Poisonous Poop.

This defense mechanism compensates for their general lack of body armor. To deter predators, the young insects cover themselves in their own toxic fecal matter.

6. In Ancient Peru, Only Women of Nobility Were Allowed to Brew Beer.

After revealing this fun fact, John went on to explain that one of the main reasons why the Pilgrims stopped at Plymouth Rock instead of venturing further was because they’d run out of beer.

7. Webster University’s Mascot is a Fictional Beast Called “The Gorlock.”

This animal purportedly “has the paws of a cheetah, the horns of a buffalo, and the face of a St. Bernard.” Its distinctive name was inspired by a pair of streets that neighbored the school’s original location.

8. According to a U.N. Estimate, Poverty Has Decreased More in the Past 50 Years than in the Previous 500.

Who says “No news is good news"? It turns out that malaria-related deaths and pet euthanasia rates have also been declining recently.

9. Koko the Gorilla Once Hugged Mister Rogers.

A fan of his show, the simian sign-language master immediately embraced Fred Rogers when the TV star dropped by for a visit.

10. In Washington State, it’s Illegal to Use X-Ray Equipment for Shoe-Fittings.

11. JD Salinger Considered Playing the Role of Holden Caulfield in an Unmade Stage Adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye.

Salinger would’ve been 30 at the time, far too old to play his teenage protagonist. However, because he adamantly refused to allow another actor to take on the role, the project fell through.

12. Granny Smith Apples are Named After Their Discoverer, Maria Ann Smith of Australia.

Despite Smith’s accomplishments, as John explains here, the fruits weren’t made commercially available until a quarter-century after her death.

13. Trimethylaminuria is a Metabolic Disorder that Makes You Smell Like Day-Old Fish.

Unfortunately, there’s no known cure.

14. Thanks to An Unfortunate Typo, a 1631 Edition of the King James Bible Said the 7th Commandment is “Thou SHALT Commit Adultery.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury was particularly outraged at this blooper and the careless printers were fined.

15. Chameleons Don’t Change Color to Blend In… They do it to Communicate and Regulate their Body Temperatures.

In the pilot episode of mental_floss on YouTube, John debunked the idea that camouflage is the main reason why these bizarre lizards alter their hues.

16. Playwright Oscar Wilde’s Last Words Were “Either That Wallpaper Goes or I Do!”

Like Miles “Pudge” Halter—the main character of his first novel, Looking for Alaska—John enjoys memorizing the dying utterances of famous people.

17. Soviet Astronaut Gehrman Titov Became the First Person to Vomit in Space.

The incident caused the U.S.S.R. to shut down its space program for a year as they grappled with the phenomenon of “space sickness.”

18. H.G. Wells Married his Cousin, Isabel, in 1891, Only to Leave Her for One of His Students Three Years Later.

A patron saint of science fiction, Wells also had affairs with novelist Rebecca West and birth-control activist Margaret Sanger.

19. Humans Have Far More Than Five Senses.

Everyone knows the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. But the ability to perceive balance, time, and approximate temperature are additional functions our bodies don’t often get their due credit for sporting.

20. The Average Sponge Contains More Bacteria than the Average Toilet Seat.

For more health and wellness insights, check out pediatrician Dr. Aaron Carroll’s show “Healthcare Triage,” on which John makes regular appearances.

21. Syphilis was so Common in Nazi-Occupied France that Hitler Decided to Fight the Problem with Blow-Up Sex Dolls.

“It probably goes without saying,” John states, “that the idea was eventually abandoned because the troops were like ‘Actually, we just prefer Syphilis!’”

22. Only 9 Percent of Giraffe Matings are Heterosexual.

In the wild world of giraffe copulation (a subject the Greens love revisiting), same-sex coitus is quite abundant, as is the practice of ritualized urine-drinking.

23. What do Catherine the Great, King George II, and Elvis Presley Have in Common? They All Died on the Toilet.

Skip to the 6:01-mark in this video for a list of other notable people who perished in the privy.

24. Ptolemy Said Shooting Stars were the Result of Gods Looking Down on Earth.

It’s for this reason that many of us wish upon these meteors to this very day.

25. A “Megadeath” is an Actual Unit of Measurement Used to Record the Number of Fatalities After an Atomic Explosion.

One Megadeath is equal to 1 million casualties.

26. The Great Pyramid of Giza Was the World’s Tallest Building for Over 3800 Years.

For more amazing info on Ancient Egypt, check out this early episode of Crash Course: World History.

27. Kent State University has Offered Classes on the Careers of Adam Sandler and Will Farrell.

An adjunct professor also teaches a course dedicated to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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