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2 Big Reasons not to put U2 on your iPod

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As you'll see this coming Friday, I like U2. Call my taste in rock'n'roll mediocre, call me a sell-out, or just an old geezer (all are true to some degree), but I've been following the band loyally since their first album 102 years ago.

But I don't like the band as much as I used to, and it has nothing to do with the direction they've gone in. Here's why:

In 2004 I bought my first iPod. For a couple months the thing worked just fine. Then one day I was at the gym, listening to U2's "Walk On" and the thing froze right in the middle of the song.

I tried all the fancy reset instructions in the manual, but alas, the thing wouldn't unfreeze and the battery eventually lost its charge because I couldn't turn it off, either.

I took it to Apple and, after confirming that it was, indeed, stuck on "Walk On" they replaced the iPod on the spot. (Luckily, it was still under warranty.) I was able to walk on out of the store with a brand new iPod, which, after syncing to my Mac back home, was a mirror image of the old one. No harm, no foul.

But cut to this past weekend, three years later, and I'm at the gym once again, this time listening to U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" and ONCE AGAIN the iPod freezes in the middle of the song "“ something it never did before.

Now, you're either thinking all I listen to is U2 or I should stop going to the gym so much. But verily I say unto thee, my 40 GB iPod is nearly full, so even if I had every U2 album on there (and I think I do), that still leaves space for thousands upon thousands of songs.

So, once again I go through all the rebooting steps in the manual and this time it seems like it works, but then suddenly, as it's rebooting, boing! I get a sad-face iPod on the screen basically telling me there's been a meltdown.

So I take it to the Apple iPod Bar near me, just to confirm. And, indeed, the hard drive is kaput (it's the 4th Generation version, pre-flash at this size HD) and the warranty is out-of-date. With no special Apple Care, I can do nothing at this point short of buy another (I'll buy an iPhone this time and kill two birds with one stone because I'm not into my BlackBerry, which is only slightly better than my old Treo.)

3460-u2ipod.jpgThere's a lot of irony nesting here, if you care to look. First, as you might know, U2 has a deal with Apple. Some have even suggested that in shuffle mode, the iPod will even play U2 songs (and other bands) more often than other songs (Apple jiggered the algorithm to favor certain bands, some say). More than that, there was, at one point, a U2 iPod "“ a 4th Generation version, that had all the band mate's signatures etched into the back cover.

So here are my questions:

1. Have any of you had issues with U2 and an iPod?
2. Anyone know if there's a way to save an iPod that's "fried"?
3. Have any of you had to trash an iPod? What happened to yours?

[update! - my dead iPod is now working again, thanks to one very helpful comment from you readers. tune in thursday for your chance to win a special thank-you gift from me to one lucky reader who can correctly identify the cure!]

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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