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The Quick 10: Gossip About the Grammys

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So who watched the Grammys last night? Were you underwhelmed? I kind of was. Granted, I turned it on during the Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus performance (I'm not exactly a Miley fan) so maybe it tainted the rest of the show for me. Anyway, it made me think about Grammys past, which resulted in today's Q10. Feel free to share your Grammy impressions in the comments!

grammy1. "The Grammys" are actually the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Awards. The actual award that winners receive is in the shape of a gramophone (or phonograph) which is where the nickname comes from.
2. The first-ever Grammy Awards were held on May 4, 1959. Winners included Henry Mancini for Album of the Year and Best Arrangement, The Kingston Trio for best Country & Western Performance, Ella Fitzgerald for Best Jazz Performance (individual), Count Basie for Best Jazz Performance (group), and Frank Sinatra for Best Album Cover Photography (really?).
3. That same year, "Tequila" by the Champs was the winner of the best Rhythm and Blues performance. This strikes me funny "“ the song Pee-Wee Herman dances to is a Grammy-winning song?

4. Best New Artist winners are usually pretty right on "“ past winners have included the Beatles, Tom Jones, The Carpenters, Bette Midler, Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, John Legend and Alicia Keys. But sometimes they're not so right...

Bobbie Gentry over Jefferson Airplane, A Taste of Honey over Elvis Costello, and Robert Goulet over The Four Seasons. Other Best New Artist losers: Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Green Day, Sonny & Cher and The Eagles.

5. The Disco category was included in the Grammy Awards for just a year before being yanked from the lineup. The only person to ever win "Best Disco Recording" was Gloria Gaynor for "I Will Survive."

6. The category "Best Rap Performance" was added in 1989 "“ the first-ever winners were D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince for "Parents Just Don't Understand."

7. Quincy Jones has the most Grammy nominations at 79 (with 27 wins).

8. Michael Jackson and Babyface Edmonds share the record for most nominations in one year "“ 12. Jackson hit the record in 1984 with his Thriller album, and Babyface tied it up in 1997.

9. LeAnn Rimes is the youngest person to ever win a Grammy. She was just 14 when she won Best New Artist in 1997. She also received the Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy the same year.

10. Only one Grammy Award has ever been revoked: Milli Vanilli's Best New Artist award from 1990. They also won three American Music Awards, but those were never reclaimed.

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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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