Posted in zany, offbeat, somewhat silly humor

Robots vs Sweden

An article ran in the New York Times a few weeks ago about some researchers in Singapore who set out to build a robot that could conquer “one of the hardest human tasks”.  Part of the article headline won’t be a surprise to you since I already told you the general idea.  But the other part of the headline was a surprise to me.  Maybe I should just quit dissembling though and reveal the headline:

Robot Conquers One of the Hardest Human Tasks: Assembling IKEA Furniture

I wasn’t too sure who thought that assembling IKEA furniture was one of humanities hardest tasks: the New York Times, or the researchers in Singapore.  I know there are lots of people who aren’t crazy about assembling IKEA furniture, but I don’t think it’s very high on the list of challenging tasks for humans, so I forged ahead and did my own survey of ten people chosen at random, asking them what they thought the hardest human task was.  These are the answers I got:

1) Building a  stargate

painting of a stargate

2) Repairing a space telescope

astronauts repairing the Hubble telescope

3) Underwater welding

two divers welding a pipe underwater
Divers on another planet, welding a submerged stargate on a May 24th long weekend and earning serious overtime pay

4) Climbing a mountain in the nude.

naked man standing on snow-covered mountain

5) Unicycling down a mountain: maybe the same one you just climbed in the nude.

6) Teaching a cat to read music AND play piano

cat playing piano
Cat attempting to learn the song “Memory” from “Cats” Broadway musical

7) Toilet training a cat

cat perched on toilet seat

8) Training two cats to use the toilet simultaneously

two cats using the toilet simultaneously

9) Training a cat to plunge a toilet

cat holding a toilet plunger
Apprentice toilet-plunging cat

10) Trying to understand what would possess a cat to insert itself into a paper tube

cat wrapped in a paper tube
Cat trying to be inconspicuous until its owners go to bed so it can pilfer sausages accidentally left out on the counter

I don’t know what’s up with all these cat responses.  Somehow I guess I just randomly encountered an inordinate number of people who happen to like cats.  I don’t blame these people one iota.  Cats are hilarious.  Maybe I asked the wrong people.  I dunno.  In my defense, I was in a pet store at the time.  But I also want to point out the distinct lack of people in my survey who said anything about IKEA furniture.

Anyway, for whatever reason, these researchers over in Singapore decided to build a robot that could assemble a piece of IKEA furniture, specifically the STEFAN chair, reasoning that this would use many human skills such as: planning, reading instructions, ignoring instructions, subsequently messing around for thirty minutes until your wife says “Just read the damned instructions would you?”, overdriving the fasteners and damaging the furniture pieces, swearing, and throwing the pieces around or possibly throwing something else such as a unicycle.

Actually, the group in Singapore are not the first group to construct a robot that can assemble IKEA furniture.  Back in 2013, a team at MIT built an “IKEAbot” that was able to assemble the LACK table.  Note that the LACK table is so-named because it lacks complexity: it has only five pieces.  Four of them are screw-in legs.  A baby hamster could assemble a LACK table.  Or maybe a baby octopus.

This reminds me.  Did you ever wonder how they name IKEA furniture?  I did.  I even wrote about it back in 1989, in my first year of Med School.  It was in the class newspaper: The Chronic Enquirer.  I think it was one of the first humor columns I ever wrote.  (I use the archaic term “humor column” because blogs hadn’t been invented yet.  Remember that the World Wide Web had just come out of Labour and Delivery in 1989.)

I probably should have quit while I was ahead.  But I didn’t.

Therefore, here’s that column, inside jokes and all:

secrets of the swedish furniture industry

secrets of the swedish furniture industry Part II

secrets of the swedish furniture industry Part III

Star Wars characters holding IKEA moose at gunpoint
Typical good, clean, Swedish shenanigans at IKEA furniture-naming fest: October 28, 1988


Posted in zany, offbeat, somewhat silly humor

Grand Unified Theory of Dance Competition Medals

Shortly after they colonized Earth and devised the Theory Of How To Sort Laundry Without Anyone You Happen To Be Married To Getting On Your Case, Quantum Physicists busily set about trying to devise a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) which would merge the electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions into one single force.  The notion behind this was that if the GUT could then be coupled with the gravitational interaction (aka gravity), this would  produce a Theory Of Everything or TOE for short.  These two acronyms could then be rearranged into another acronym: GET OUT, as in: “Get Outta this galaxy!  That is one badass theory.”

richard feynman standing in front of a blackboard
Quantum Physicist Richard Feynman with a somewhat different haircut than the one he had in the photo on his Los Alamos ID card

But decades later, the TOE still eludes them.

What happened?  Well unfortunately, along with a large number of regular human beings, the Quantum Physicists got sidetracked once their kids started taking dance classes.

Anybody who has kids in dance knows that it’s a cutthroat and hectic business come competition season.  Your kid might be in as many as six different dance competitions throughout the months of April, May and possibly part of June.  And if you have more than one kid in dance, the complexity of driving them all over the place and watching all the various dance numbers rapidly becomes overwhelming.  Even to Quantum Physicists.

densely packed handwritten quantum physics equations
Typical logistics planning for dance competition season

Then there are the awards.  Each competition seems to have a different hierarchy of medals that are handed out.  To save time, I’m just going to focus on the medals for the highest awards.  In one competition, first place would be a Gold medal.  Makes sense, right?  Gold was probably good enough for the Greeks when the Olympic Games started 2,784 years ago.  And it’s still used for first place in today’s Olympics.

picture of a gold medal for a dance competition award hanging on a ribbon

But in another competition, the highest award might be Platinum.  And in yet another one, Titanium is the highest award.  It’s so confusing, especially when you start looking  at the Periodic Table.

colorful periodic table

Recall that the Periodic Table organizes the elements into rows and columns according to the structure and size of the atoms.  The atomic number reflects the size of the nucleus: bigger atomic number, bigger nucleus.  Simple, right?  So there’s no way that Titanium, coming in way down at atomic number 22,  should take precedence over Platinum (atomic number 78) or Gold (atomic number 79).

That’s my point.  See how easily I got sucked in?  The same thing happened to the Quantum Physicists!  They spent too much time trying to figure out the transportation schedules for dance competition season.  And when they got done with that, they started trying to devise a Grand Unified Theory of Hierarchification of Dance Medals.  So they forgot all about the TOE.

But back to Titanium et al.  You can barely give Titanium away.  It sells for like $12/kg whereas you are going to fork over almost $30,000 for a kilo of Platinum and over $40,000 for a kilo of Gold.  So again, Titanium loses on atomic number AND price.  The only thing it really has going for it is corrosion resistance and a high strength-to-density ratio.  Big deal.

I feel like Titanium should be banished from the podium.  There are lots of other elements that could take its place, like Osmium (atomic number 76) and Iridium (atomic number 77).  They’re not making as much Osmium and Iridium as they used to, so as is the case for Platinum and Gold, you and your bank account will be parting ways to the tune of $35,000 to $45,000/kg if you want to score some Osmium and Iridium.  And don’t even get me started on Rhodium. Its price can spike up to several hundred thousand dollars per kilogram.  I swear on Warren Buffet’s money clip that I’m not making that up.

And there’s always good old Ununennium (aka Eka-Francium).  Ununennium, at atomic number 119, hangs out way, way up there in the Periodic Table, on the Island of Stability, where all the Chartered Accountants first settled when they came to Earth.  (The Quantum Physicists settled in LA.)  Trouble is, Ununennium costs several billion dollars per atom so that would make for some pretty small medals.  Plus who can pronounce it?

Dance Competition Judge: “And the High Unending Award goes to…Sorry I mean High Unununennui Award…Whoops! There I go again!  The High Underwearennium Award…Crap!  One more time.  The High Ununennium Award for Lyrical Dance goes to entry number 187: Badass Theory!

Audience: Wild applause and odd biphasic hooting sounds.

Really, at the end of the day, most metals (including Silver!) look similar: silvery, greyish or greyish-blue.

stack of titanium rods
Titanium rods
crystals of platinum metal
Platinum crystals
beautiful osmium crystal formation
Weird-looking thing made of pure osmium

Even Theodore Gray, author of the best-seller: The Elements would admit that most of the metallic elements look alike.  I think he even says that somewhere, maybe page 123, but don’t quote me.

photo of the cover of Theodore Gray's book: THe Elements
Don’t get me wrong.  This is an excellent book.  If you’re into Chemistry.  Not that I’m biased

Maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing.  Maybe no one besides me cares how the blazes a dance competition chooses to name its medals.  The kids in dance work darned hard.  They deserve those awards no matter what metal they’re named after.

The Quantum Physicists need to get back to work devising a TOE.

Bad-ass Theory might be an OK name for a band.

I obviously need to get a life.  And I will, as soon as I check whether hierarchification is even a word.  I feel like it should be.

Next column: Robot successfully performs one of the hardest human tasks