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Shorts That Don't Suck, Vol. III: Arty Edition

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For those of you who've been waiting breathlessly for my third installment of "Shorts" (the first two are here and here), sorry it's been so long! (It takes us awhile to find enough non-sucky shorts to fill a whole post!) This time we'll be featuring films of a different breed: a foreign film, some music-based work and some concentrated weirdness by David Lynch, all of which is awesome.

And hey, before we get started (speaking of awesome!), I wanted to draw your attention to the still above: it's a sneak-preview of the eponymous, geeky hero from my latest in-the-works floss short! Why am I so excited? Because it's entirely new territory for me -- not only is it fully animated, but we're making it using cutting-edge performance capture technology! (You know, like Beowulf. But with a slightly lower budget.) Anyway, we'll keep you up to date as it nears completion; we're working hard on it even as I type. (Well, maybe not as I type. But in all likelihood, after I type.)

Now, without further ado, some awesome shorts that aren't still works-in-progress.

I'll Wait for the Next One (J'Attendrai Le Suivant)
In this Oscar-nominated short, a lonely woman finds love on the subway ... or does she? (It's arty 'cause it's French!)

Ever since this Scandinavian kid got featured on YouTube a few weeks ago (when Michel Gondry was guest-curating the front page -- quite an honor!), he's been blowing up! He can play neither the drums nor the piano, but with the magic of editing, he makes himself sound like a pro.

Lost Book Found
Normally I abhor that genre of filmmaking known as "video art" (it feels too academic; it doesn't move me), but I find this excerpt from video art master Jem Cohen's film Lost Book Found totally engrossing, hypnotic and mysterious. (And it has a story, which sets it apart from video art.) At ten minutes, it's the longest clip here, but if you've got the time I think you'll find it rewarding and fascinating.

Radiohead: Faust Arp
I don't know if you've heard Radiohead's new album In Rainbows (it's amazing), but this is more or less a home movie of singer Thom Yorke and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Greenwood (who was ROBBED for not getting an Oscar nomination for the There Will Be Blood score, by the way) playing the strange, haunting track "Faust Arp" on a Scottish hilltop at dusk. A unique, intimate way to experience the song -- even with the sound of whipping wind getting in the microphone as they play. I can't believe this can only been watched 50,000 times on YouTube! (PS, ignore the nonsensical first 40 seconds of this clip, which includes one NSFW swear word.)

Insane David Lynch Cigarette Commercial
A nice palate-cleanser. Interpretations are welcome; your guess is as good as mine!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]