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Bye-bye Bergman, arrivederci Antonioni

Attention legendary auteurs of world cinema: please stop dying! In the past two days, we've lost two of the best -- Swedish director Ingmar "Gloomy Gus" Bergman and Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni -- and if death keeps swinging his cinema scythe at this rate, we'll be down to the likes of Spielberg in a week or two. While both were highly respected filmmakers in their own right, Bergman was undoubtedly the giant of the two. American filmmaker Paul Schrader (he wrote Taxi Driver) said of his passing, "It's impossible for anyone of my generation not to have been influenced by Bergman." High praise indeed, and not far from the mark: you see his trademark all over today's movies, but perhaps nowhere more clearly, I will argue, than in dream sequences.

Everybody loves a good dream sequence, and Bergman was a master of them, playing with everything sound design to editing and music (or creepy lack thereof) to create something so uncanny, it could only be a dream. He perfected it in his masterpiece, Wild Strawberries, when the elderly professor dreams -- what else -- of his inevitable death:

If the uncannny dream sequence was one of Bergman's hallmarks, it's everywhere now. Roman Polanski's wonderful dream scenes from Rosemary's Baby are a perfect example (wish I could post them here, but YouTube doesn't have 'em): sound and image disconnect just enough to make the dreams seem almost but not quite real, and thus, super-creepy. (Check out our run-down of the uncanny valley phenomenon, which looks at why not-quite-human robots and clones are so darn creepy.)

Another great example of Bergman's dreams are played out (or rather, were) every few weeks on The Sopranos; Tony's dreams seem exported directly from the Swedish art cinema. Remember when he was in that coma, hovering between life and death, trapped in the dream purgatory of an Orange County hotel, a lighthouse shining endlessly out his window? Sooooo Bergman. (Again, wish I had a clip!)

David Lynch could never be called derivative, but watching Eraserhead feels like you're watching a feature-length version of one of Bergman's dream sequences. The whole darn thing is uncanny. I finally found a clip that feels appropriately illustrative of my point, so I'm going to post it, but viewer beware, not only is it super creepy, but Eraserhead's head flies off about halfway through, and fake as it looks, it's definitely grotesque. The first four minutes are really all you need to see, anyway:

When Schrader says that everybody is influenced by Bergman, he means everybody: even, to some small and silly degree, my friends and I in high school. We used to make videos on the weekends -- one-off, extemporized, edited-in-camera, bad acting and the rest -- and we called this one, quite simply, "Art Film." (In retrospect, not so sure about that claim, but hey, we were young and pretentious.) It's not a dream, but it is weird and black-and-white. Special bonus: stars two current floss bloggers!

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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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Opening Ceremony
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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]

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