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Buzz Aldrin // WhoSay

18 Things We Learned from Buzz Aldrin's Reddit AMA

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Buzz Aldrin // WhoSay

Today, the second man to walk on the Moon did a Reddit AMA. Here are a few things we learned.

1. He got his nickname from his sister. “My sister called me ‘Buzzard’ when I was a baby,” Aldrin said. “She couldn't say ‘Brother’ so I've been Buzz my whole life.”

2. Aldrin doesn’t brag about his exploits on the Moon. “I don't want to be shockingly bragging," he said. "I would rather people understand that there is a very, very fortunate American who was given the opportunity, and was in the right place at the right time to have the moment of a lifetime. My mother was born—her name was Marianne Moon. And she was born in 1903, the year that the Wright Brothers first flew. ... I was lucky enough to have been born on this planet earth, in this admirable country of the United States of America.”

3. There was discussion about who should be first to step on the moon—and some at NASA thought it should be Aldrin. "I felt that there was an obligation on my part to put forth the reasons why a commander who had been burdened down with an enormous amount of responsibility and training for activities (and because of that, in all previous missions, if someone, a crew member, was to spacewalk, it was always the junior person, not the space commander who would stay inside)," Aldrin said. "We knew this would be different because 2 people would be going out. There was a group at NASA who felt the junior person (me) should go out first, but many people felt the great symbology of the commander from past expeditions or arrivals at a destination." Ultimately, NASA made the call that Neil Armstrong would go first. "The decision that was made was absolutely correct as far as who went out first, symbolically," Aldrin said.

4. Still, the astronaut feels that what came next could have been handled better. "However, who was in charge of what happened after both people are outside, I believe, could have been done differently," he said. "I was not the commander, I was a junior person, so once both were outside, I followed my leader, because we (NASA) had not put together detailed jobs of people outside. I believe it could have been improved. But it was very successful for what it was."

5. His favorite ice cream flavor is coconut.

6. If he could give advice to aspiring engineers and astrophysicists, it would be: “Don't waste your time on beaming people up or down. Instead, consider gravity waves as advanced physics of the universe that could be used to travel interstellar distances. And ENJOY floating in space, rather than being decomposed or recomposed in another location.”

7. When he first looked back and saw Earth from space, Aldrin thought: "Where are the billions and billions and billions of people, on what I'm looking at? We're the only 3 that are not back there."

8. Aldrin isn’t a fan of “Fly Me to the Moon”—“I have heard Frank Sinatra sing [it] almost too many times," he said—but he is “interested in composing a new song, entitled ‘Get your ass to Mars!’”

9. The scariest thing he experienced in space occurred as they were rendezvousing with Mike Collins after their visit to the Moon—and it was Aldrin's fault. “As we approached connecting / docking, the procedures in the checklist said one thing, and I thought maybe doing it a slightly different way, rolling and pitching instead of something else, and I thought that was better on the spur of the moment!" Aldrin said. "It turns out that it was not a good thing to do, because it caused the platform to become locked, and we were not able to use the primary thrusters, the primary guidance, to control the spacecraft, to its final few feet to dock and join the other spacecraft. That was my mistake. I suggested to my commander that we do it differently, and it was his mistake to assume that I knew what I was talking about. So we both made mistakes—brought about by me!" They recovered using the "abort guidance" system, Aldrin said, and then: "(I don't admit that to many people) (but I'm sure the mission controllers in Houston, while it was happening or certainly afterwards, they certainly knew what had happened, but fortunately they didn't squeal on us)[.]”

10. Aldrin took a trip down to the Titanic “in a little yellow french submarine." He said that "the visibility was such that we could see the bow ... but [it] was not so good that you could actually see the bottom of the ocean that the Titanic was resting on. So it was an eerie site, of a ship festooned with rusting metal, like gingerbread. Floating, floating out the window in the Ocean.”

11. He saw an unidentified object en route to the Moon, but he doesn’t think it was aliens. “I observed a light out the window that appeared to be moving alongside us. There were many explanations of what that could be, other than another spacecraft from another country or another world—it was either the rocket we had separated from, or the 4 panels that moved away when we extracted the lander from the rocket and we were nose to nose with the two spacecraft. So in the close vicinity, moving away, were 4 panels. And I feel absolutely convinced that we were looking at the sun reflected off of one of these panels. Which one? I don't know. So technically, the definition could be 'unidentified.' We well understood exactly what that was. And when we returned, we debriefed and explained exactly what we had observed. And I felt that this had been distributed to the outside world, the outside audience, and apparently it wasn't, and so many years later, I had the time in an interview to disclose these observations, on another country's television network. And the UFO people in the United States were very very angry with me, that I had not given them the information. It was not an alien."

12. But that doesn't mean Aldrin doesn't believe in aliens. "There may be aliens in our Milky Way galaxy, and there are billions of other galaxies," he said. "The probability is almost CERTAIN that there is life somewhere in space. It was not that remarkable, that special, that unusual, that life here on earth evolved gradually, slowly, to where we are today. But the distances involved in where some evidence of life may be, they may be hundreds of light years away.”

13. He doesn’t care about people who think the Moon landing was faked. “I personally don't waste very much of my time on what is so obvious to a really thinking person ... [W]e talked about Carl Sagan ... who made a very prophetic observation. He said that 'extraordinary observations require extraordinary evidence to make them believable.' There is not extraordinary evidence of (as far as I know) all the claims that have been made that we did NOT go to the Moon. There are photographs from lunar reconnaissance orbiter satellites, going around the moon, that clearly show all of the experiments that we described when we came back from the moon, and they are evidence that we were there, telling the truth.”

14. His favorite book about space is 2001: A Space Odyssey. He once spent some time with Arthur C. Clarke, during which he and the author "talked about a treasure he had discovered in the ocean, and we both hoped in the future that he and I could scuba dive and perhaps retrieve some of that treasure. That never happened, unfortunately."

15. He and Neil deGrasse Tyson are BFFs. “We were on a commission together to look at the future of space activities for the United States, that was about 12 years ago, and we've been good friends ever since," Aldrin said. "I was on his TV show. He did Michael Jackson's moonwalk far better than I did on Dancing With the Stars.”

16. Aldrin believes Mars is the next best extraterrestrial stop for us. “There is very little doubt, in my mind, that what the next monumental achievement of humanity will be the first landing by an Earthling, a human being, on the planet Mars," he said; he believes that America will lead the way within two decades of the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing.

17. He also thinks that it should be a one-way trip for the explorers who make the trip. "You want it to be permanent from the get-go, from the very first," Aldrin said. "I know that many people don't feel that that should be done. Some people even consider it distinctly a suicide mission. Not me! Not at all. Because we will plan, we will construct from the moon of Mars, over a period of 6-7 years, the landing of different objects at the landing site that will be brought together to form a complete Mars habitat and laboratory, similar to what has been done at the Moon. Tourism trips to Mars and back are just not the appropriate way for human beings from Earth—to have an individual company, no matter how smart, send people to Mars and bring them back, it is VERY very expensive. It delays the obtaining of permanence, internationally."

18. And though some people feel the private sector should lead the way to Mars, Aldrin disagrees. This "monumental achievement by humanity ... should not be one private company at all," he said. "It should be a collection of the best from all the countries on Earth, and the leader of the nation or the groups who makes a commitment to do that in 2 decades will be remembered throughout history, hundreds and thousands of years in the future of the history of humanity, beginning, commencing, a human occupation of the solar system.”

Aldrin closed the AMA with this piece of advice: "Be careful what you dream of, it just may happen to you. Anyone who dreams of something, has to be prepared."

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]