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The Tone-Deaf Man Who Invented Karaoke

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Given how many horrendous karaoke performances we've been subjected to, we weren't at all surprised to learn that the guy who invented the karaoke machine can't sing, can't read music, and plays the keyboards about as well as your average third-grader.

Songs in the Off-key of Life

We were, however, surprised to learn that poor Daisuke Inoue has made almost no money from his invention, and that he didn't even give it a try himself until 1999, on his 59th birthday. Inoue's happy-go-lucky ineptitude has been pretty much the driving force of his entire life. In high school he picked up the drums, which he chose as an instrument because, hey, all you had to do was hit them. Eventually, he took his limited talent and started playing with a Hawaiian band that frequented old dance halls from the days of the American World War II occupation. Inoue, shall we say, marched to the beat of a different drummer. Noticing this, the other band members quickly, and somewhat mercifully, realized that he'd be of better use on the business side, and he started acting as the band's manager. But he still served as occasional drummer, particularly on amateur nights playing backup for rich Japanese businessmen.

Because Inoue couldn't read musical notation, he had to rely on watching the singer's lips in order to strike the right beat. One of his clients apparently found his drum technique flattering and asked Inoue to accompany him to a hot springs resort as his personal drummer. But Inoue couldn't go. Time Asia tells what happened next: "[Inoue] obliged by providing him with a tape of his accompaniment. The boss delivered an emotional rendition of Frank Nagai's "˜Leaving Haneda Airport on a 7:50 Flight,' Inoue collected his money in absentia and karaoke (a term long used in the industry for house musicians "“ it literally means "˜empty orchestra') was born."

Inoue quickly realized he was on to something. With some help from his buddies, he built 11 prototype machines, kitted them out with amplifiers and background music, and then leased them to bars in Kobe. They were an immediate hit.

But Inoue made one crucial mistake: He didn't patent his invention.

Big companies quickly realized they could make a mint on machines and tapes and made their own. Inoue only went so far as to patent two things: a type of plastic-covered songbook for wannabe Frank Sinatras, and a concoction he claimed could ward off rats and cockroaches in more downscale karaoke joints. But hey, give the poor guy credit: He certainly did things His Way.

This piece was excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store. Karaoke image credit: Gwen Bell's excellent guide, 'How to Rock a Karaoke Bar.'

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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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Opening Ceremony
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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