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The Late Movies: Musicians and Their Awesome Sesame Street Appearances

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I keep coming across musicians who have appeared on Sesame Street (usually singing the Alphabet Song), and the performances are uniformly awesome. (One of the best videos from my Late Movies segment last week was Stevie Wonder live on Sesame Street, and in a previous week, Paul Simon was on Sesame Street.) I've collected some favorites here for your viewing enjoyment.

Feist, "1 2 3 4"

Feist performs her hit "1 2 3 4" with a twist -- it's now more specifically about counting than about growing up. Totally adorable.

Queen Latifah, "The Letter O"

Safari Sisters in the house! "Now, one day I was chillin' on Sesame Street, hanging wit' my homegirls, rockin' to the beat, when Telly came along and he was feelin' kinda blue, he said, 'I lost my Letter O, what should I do?'" Latifah's advice: learn some words that include the letter O!

R.E.M., "Furry Happy Monsters"

They pulled some monster Muppets out of storage (including a B-52's Kate Pierson monster) for this Sesame Street-ified rendition of their hit "Shiny Happy People."

Norah Jones, "Don't Know Y"

This is pretty cute -- "Don't Know Why" becomes a song about missing the letter Y, spelling words like Yarn and Yet.

Ray Charles and Friends, "The Alphabet Song"

Only Ray Charles can make the Alphabet Song soulful and sort of wistful. Includes guest appearances by Patrick Stewart, Ellen Degeneres, Tony Bennett, and more. "Won't you sing along with me?"

Patti LaBelle, "The Alphabet Song" (Gospel Version)

Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Kermit the Frog, "African Alphabet Song"

Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, "The Alphabet Song"

Slightly similar to the above, but with no Kermit and no fancy visuals.

Spin Doctors, "Two Princes"

Um. I guess the Spin Doctors' singer got a haircut and kinda needs work.

Tilly and the Wall, "The Alphabet Song"

Indie rock band Tilly and the Wall, most notable for its lack of a drummer (they use tap-dancers instead to keep the beat), perform a modified Alphabet Song.

Who Did I Leave Out?

Share your favorite musical memories of Sesame Street in the comments!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]