On Music: Guitar Wizards Shred

Update: OK, I guess the joke was too subtle! Watch these clips and listen verrrry closely ...

I'm borrowing the title of David's wonderful recurring column in order to pay homage to, and examine, a few of my own musical heroes. You see, sometimes an artist is just so humblingly gifted at one particular thing -- Picasso with his brush; Joyce with his pen -- that all you can do is sit back in awe and watch. There are such a precious few guitar players in the world who can have that kind of held-in-thrall effect on a whole audience at once -- virtuosos who don't even really need a backing band, thanks to the sheer majesty of their skills. I thought I would take a moment to honor those magic few here.

Many of these artists will be familiar to you; some may not. I invite you to take this opportunity to discover -- or rediscover, whatever the case may be -- a few of the guitar's great geniuses. In no particular order, here they are.

Paco de Lucia
Recognized as one of the most talented Flamenco guitarists ever, Spaniard Paco de Lucia has done much to popularize Flamenco all over the world. He's also crossover success story with jazz, funk, classical, and world music recordings under his musical belt. Is there anything he can't do?

Steve Vai
If Flamenco isn't your style, try a little Vai on for size. Ask any guitar freak and you'll get the same answer: Steve Vai is universally hailed as a saint of the six-string, who got his career started playing guitar for Frank Zappa (which, depending on how much you know about Zappa, you'll realize is ... hard). In fact, Zappa was known to refer to Vai as "my little Italian virtuoso," and he's listed in the liner notes of several Zappa albums as playing "stunt guitar." But hey, don't take Frank Zappa's word for it:

Eric Clapton
From his early work in the Yardbirds and Cream to his chart-topping solo hits of more recent vintage, just about everyone's heard Eric Clapton shred. But that's no reason to deny yourself the pleasure of another dose of Eric's magical electric boogaloo:

Rounding out our set today is the inestimable Carlos Santana (so famous he doesn't need a first name), a Grammy-winning artist named one the top 15 guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone. But the proof, as it were, is in the pudding:

My thanks to Santeri for his brilliant movie magic (so sorry YouTube decided to take these down, man).

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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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Opening Ceremony
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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]