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Monochrom/Johannes Grenzfurthner

Traceroute, A Documentary about Nerds and Annihilation

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Monochrom/Johannes Grenzfurthner

The documentary Traceroute screened last week in New York City, and is on the road now at film festivals. Director Johannes Grenzfurthner encourages fellow nerds to email him to request a screening. Here's a trailer:

Below, my review and a Q&A with the director.


So here's the thing: This is a documentary nominally about "nerd culture," but it's actually good. As many nerds have noticed, there's a glut of nerd-positive documentaries out there, but they tend to be either too self-serious, or too focused on the trappings of fandom to actually say much.

Traceroute manages to be a real film, with humor and true insight (sometimes called out for us—and delightfully nullified—with a blinking "INSIGHT" faux-HTML tag onscreen), primarily because it focuses on Grenzfurthner's personal journey, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. Let's put that another way: The director uses himself and a handful of subjects to create his story, and that specificity—coupled with his playfulness—makes it work. At one point he licks the chrome head of a Terminator prop. Then he licks a zombie head prop. Then he licks the propmaster himself. It's delightful.

The film includes visits to Area 51, Stan Winston Studios, the parking lot at JPL, and a surprising array of other notable spots. It even has a lengthy segment shot at the place where Carl Sagan filmed the opening to Cosmos—the bit where he blew on a dandelion. There is a delight to seeing all of this, and how Grenzfurthner strings it all together. Sometimes it makes sense; sometimes it doesn't. Such is life on the road.

Born in Austria, Grenzfurthner made the film to mark his 40th birthday in 2015. It's a road trip from the West Coast of the US to the East, with many stops along the way to visit all sorts of nerds—from sex-toy designers to special effects designers to synthetic biologists to mechanics to CB radio repairmen to digital archivists. It's framed by near-continuous narration by Grenzfurthner, creating a dreamy feel, as we engage in his obsession with Sagan's Cosmos, a surprising number of Subway franchises, and a consistent theme of Grenzfurthner's anxiety about nuclear annihilation (he is a child of the Cold War, after all). Coupled with unusual camera work, occasional (intentional) glitching of the film, and a playful interaction of narrator with onscreen action, this film is a winner.


Here's a representative quote from the middle of the movie, after a visit to the, ahem, adult toy makers Bad Dragon. Here:


Grenzfurthner (voiceover): "Let's go to Olive Garden! It is a fascinating example of corporate culture. Its menu is entirely based on customer statistics. It offers as 'Italian food' what Americans think Italian food is. It's a gastro-empirical feedback loop, and it knocks us straight into a well-deserved alfredo coma."



Grenzfurthner (voiceover): "What does my subconscious want to tell me? Maybe the physically impossible promise of 'unlimited breadsticks' haunts my skeptical mind. Or maybe it tells me that we should go to Flagstaff and check out Meteor Crater."

Moments later, we see Grenzfurthner completely alone, sitting on a park bench in front of a barren brick wall labeled "American Astronaut Wall of Fame." Seconds after that, he locates a Subway franchise and eats alone under a leafless tree in the desert. Then he wanders by Meteor Crater, more interested in eating his cookie than the crater. Then he stares at an air-conditioning unit. Then he notes a museum exhibit explaining meteor impacts using the "Impact" font; then a misspelling on a sign prohibiting "Arial" [sic] photography. The isolation and banality of these situations is truly funny, and also deeply nerdy. If you know what Impact and Arial are, it's a deep set of jokes. Even if you don't, it's still fun and accessible.


The film is still on the festival circuit, so it's not available online. When I asked Grenzfurthner how readers could check out this film, he suggested that they email him to arrange a screening, or visit one of the many screenings already lined up (scroll down past all the laurels and awards). One content note: While the film isn't rated, it does have a meaningful dose of sexuality and occasional salty language; I'd recommend leaving the kids at home for this one. (Better yet, have them figure out for themselves how to sneak into a screening.)


Higgins: Many generations experience technological shifts. Yours (and mine) is the first to grow up in a world with disconnected computers in the home, then increasingly connected ones. We were also the first to grow up with some access to video cameras that used cheap tape, opening up a major avenue for filmmaking——cheap enough that even children could do it. From the documentary, it'€™s clear that computers have been a huge thing for you, but can you give me some background on your interest in filmmaking across the past 40 years? Seeing your (many) home movies in the early section of the film, clearly you were using that technology as well.

Grenzfurthner: Yes, absolutely.

Historically speaking, the first wave of the punk/new wave (approximately 1976-1983) was primarily a movement of creative abuse of hardly-ever-used consumer media technology. Parents (usually technophile Baby boomer dads) bought expensive equipment like 8-track recorders, Super-8 and Polaroid cameras and later VHS camcorders and only used it to "document" birthday parties and other eminently boring ceremonies. But the rebellious teens found interesting new things to do with the dust-collecting media tech, and it started one of the biggest DIY revolutions of the 20th century. So punk (years before cyperpunk) was a movement of youngsters goofing around with (aka appropriating) consumer tech.

I was born 1975 and therefore too young to be an active part of the first punk/new wave movement, but you could say I was absorbing the second phase (1982-1988) as a kid through popular media. The damage was already done, because the aesthetics of new wave became mainstream, and I sucked it up like a sponge. In the long run, it brought me into the caring arms of Mondo 2000, Burroughs, RE/Search, you name it.

I was a very classic kid of the 1980s. Obsessed with watching TV. First there wasn't a big difference for me between an episode of Tom & Jerry and a re-run of Peter Hyams' Capricorn One. But that changed fast. I recorded it all on VHS, watched it over and over again and I began to understand how movies were carefully constructed emotional machines. I wanted to try to create them myself and so I wrote down stories. And our family camcorder was a neat tool to play with. The challenges of tech were frustrating and rewarding at the same time. An example: We didn't have two VCRs, so I always had to edit the video while shooting. If a take, let's say, of our Space-Shuttle-on-strings-movies was bad, I had to rewinded the tape and record the take again, overwrite the bad take. That always created these magical bursts of interference and micro-fragments between scenes, because the rewind function just wasn't precise enough. I'm still in love with these unwanted visual leftovers. During the editing of Traceroute I digitized many of the films I shot as a kid—and I wasted hours analyzing them frame-by-frame. Fascinating. Material semantics, hell yeah!

Filmmaking was something that I always returned to, and for me it is one of the most fulfilling arenas of creative problem-solving and teamwork. You constantly have to face difficulties: logistics, equipment, social drama, storytelling, acting. The emotional machine needs to be well tuned, and sometimes even hit with a sledge hammer, like a stereotypical Russian on a stereotypical MIR.

Higgins: Do you think there'€™s a meaningful distinction between the term '€œgeek'€ and '€œnerd'€? (And/or do you care?)

Grenzfurthner: I never wanted to get in this debate, because it doesn't really get us anywhere. It's like arguing if a specific color is called "ochre" or rather "salmon". If you want to be anal about colors, use the goddamn Pantone scale.

The term "nerd" represents a specific set of stereotypes and connotations—and for me it was important to talk to interesting people why they identify with it. It wasn't necessary to get into etymological details, but into personal stories. I would see Traceroute as a harsh exorcism ritual (including a lot of pea-soup-puking), but also a kind and loving embrace. It is a film about the deficits and wonders of obsession. It's about the guts of trauma, joy, and—ultimately—cognitive capitalism.

Higgins: In many of your interviews, I see a Flip camera positioned either in your hand, pointed back at the crew, or above you pointed down, or in other fairly unconventional places. And then you sometimes actually use that footage! What led you to make this unusual choice of camera placement?

Grenzfurthner: I like experimenting with form without being too masturbatory about it. Just trying to keep it interesting, flowing.

Traceroute's style reminds me of cut-up fanzines, ANSI art, BBS typesets, and is very collage-y. It made sense to also play around with our camera placements. In the editing process I ended up using that material quite a bit. I made sense. It was a very personal journey with two friends, but at the same time we created a film. So I wanted to make the making-of part of the final product. The journey was the reward, but also, in a very McLuhan way (that damned Catholic!), the message.

Higgins: You licked the Terminator and a zombie head. Do you recall what they tasted like?

Grenzfurthner: Like the bitter taste of history.

[All images courtesy of Monochrom/Johannes Grenzfurthner.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.