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Grunge rock's greatest videos

It sounds weird, but this is the music I grew up on. It's amazing to me how dated it seems only fifteen years later -- the shaggy yet carefully-coiffed hair, the Doc Marten boots that went halfway to the knee, the closets full of nearly identical flannel shirts and ripped, stonewashed jeans -- and the guttural snarl and overprocessed guitars. Yep ... grunge. It also happened to be the era, in my humble opinion, when MTV really started to come into its own; perhaps one day we'll remember Grunge by its dark, frenetic music videos the way we remember the Civil War by its blurry daguerreotypes. Now here they are, grunge's ridiculous, according-to-us best-of:

Alice in Chains: "Man in the Box"
In this rough-edged gem, the Grim Reaper stalks the barnyard. No one captured the brooding self-loathing of grunge quite the way Alice in Chains did. They never wrote a happy song, and this is certainly no exception.

Temple of the Dog: "Hunger Strike"
This grunge-rock supergroup featured Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and soon-to-be Pearl Jam rockers Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready. In this video for their big hit, they're all standing on the same wheaty island (let's assume it's off the coast of Seattle), but they're all standing apart from one another: typical "in my own Hell"-style grunge rock isolationism. (Kids in the Hall's movie Brain Candy featured a right-on-the-money grunge parody song, the lyrics of which go something like "Some days it's dark / Some days I work / I walk alone ...") These guys definitely walk alone.

Mother Love Bone: "Stardog Champion"
Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood would've ruled the grunge scene had he not OD'd in 1990. If he hadn't, however, band members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard might not have gone on to form Pearl Jam, and then where would my childhood be? But seriously: MLB sounds like Robert Plant if Robert Plant was born in Singles-era Seattle.

Primus: "Tommy the Cat"
Is Primus grunge? Inasmuch as they defy easy classification, I'd argue that they're also very much a product of the grunge era, though their downright silly style stands in sharp contrast to the constant grimace worn by most grungers from 1989-1994. It's just a shame that Tom Waits, who voices "Tommy," declined to be in the video. (Secret fact: I bought a fretless bass in high school because of this song.)

Stone Temple Pilots: "Wicked Garden"
Sporting the weirdest band name in grunge, "STP" was initially just the letters -- like the motor oil -- until the guys decided they needed more than an acronym. They played as Stereo Temple Pirates for awhile, until their label pressured them to change it (though singer Scott Weiland does sound a little like a pirate ... "I wanna run through your wicked gaaarrrden!")

Soundgarden: "Black Hole Sun"
Is this an ad for Botox? Seriously, though: while the effects may look a little tame by today's standards, the "Black Hole Sun" video was really a watershed moment for MTV (and for grunge), marking the beginning of serious computer-generated special effects in videos, and signaling a move toward shiny, hypercolor creepiness rather than dark, gritty creepiness (a la the "Man in the Box" video, for instance). And by the way, that little girl still gives me nightmares. (Then again, most do.)

Pearl Jam: "Jeremy"
Unique among the videos portrayed here -- with the possible exception of "Heart-Shaped Box" -- "Jeremy" doesn't feel dated. Perhaps it's because, other than being a rockin' tune, in it Vedder portrays someone besides himself feeling angry and isolated; it's got a nice specificity to it where other grunge songs feel general. The video reflects that.

Nirvana: "Heart-Shaped Box"
Santa on the cross! Mechanical crows! Krist Novoselic's impossibly lavender pants! Maybe the best song of the grunge era, and certainly the best video. It takes the saturated colors and freaky religious imagery of "Black Hole Sun" and makes it into art rather than just a freakshow.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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