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The Late Movies: Paul Simon's Concert in Central Park, 21 Years Later

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Twenty-one years ago today, Paul Simon put on a massive concert in Central Park. The performance on August 15, 1991 focused on material from his albums Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, plus an assortment of greatest hits of his previous work, including Simon & Garfunkel material...but without Garfunkel. The resulting double album has been required listening in my house for the following two+ decades. Of course, Simon's 1991 Concert in the Park wasn't his first Central Park blowout -- way back in 1981 he and Garfunkel did a reunion show that led to the album The Concert in Central Park. Confused yet? Good.

Tonight, let's take a look and listen to some notable moments from the 1991 performance. Although you often hear estimates of 600,000-750,000 people in attendance, recent reviews seem to debunk those figures, suggesting attendance on the lawn could have been only 100,000 tops. Oh well, it's still a huge concert.

"The Obvious Child"

The opening song in the concert, with a killer beat and some killer-diller vintage 1991 clothes. Simon's outfit has aged reasonably well, but I can't say the same about the trumpet player's green/orange/purple button-down shirt.

"You Can Call Me Al" With and Without Chevy Chase

First up, the version that appeared on the concert album, minus Chevy Chase (presumably due to a few vocal flubs -- Chevy has the tendency to do that to a man). Trivia: on the studio version, the bass solo's second half is actually a reversed tape of the first half...making it a tricky thing to play live. The live solo appears here at about 4:14 and is a masterful piece of bass work. Anyway, without Chevy:

And with Chevy (distinctly more awesome). I'm guessing this was an encore? Anyone at the concert remember how they got away with playing the same song twice?

"The Boxer"

Compare this with the Simon & Garfunkel version from 10 years earlier. I like this one much better, but your mileage may vary.

"Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes"

The video quality here is a bit rough, but the soul comes through. "I mean everybody here would know exactly what I'm talking about!" (Crowd roars.)

"Bridge Over Troubled Water"

Simon attempts "Bridge" without Garfunkel. I think this works, but it's really not the same. Compare to the 1981 version featuring Garfunkel -- Art absolutely nails it, and it literally gives me chills.

"Graceland"

It holds up.

"Me & Julio Down By the Schoolyard"

The extra percussion really works on this one, as dusk falls over New York City. Interestingly, Simon completely messed up the whistling around 1:30 (you can see him grimace at his bandmates after the first flub); on the album proper whistling is overdubbed.

"The Sound of Silence"

"Hello darkness, my old friend." This track closes the show. Compare (if you dare) to a performance by Simon & Garfunkel in Madison Square Garden in 2009.

This is Not on DVD

This concert was never released on DVD, though VHS, Laserdisc, and audio-only versions are out there. A Facebook group wants to change that. Maybe enough Likes will change whatever contract is holding back this release?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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