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4 Great Documentaries Currently Free on YouTube

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So, recently YouTube started showing whole movies for free -- much like Hulu, there are occasional ads interspersed, but they're not too bad. The video quality is better than average for a YouTube video, and of course, it's free, so what do you have to lose? In this roundup, I'll point you to four great documentaries currently live on YouTube...and later in the week I'll focus on a fifth that might just blow your mind.

American Movie

This 1999 documentary follows Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt as he tries to film his indie horror epic Coven, despite lacking funding, proper equipment, crew, a complete script, and so on. (For what it's worth, Coven was eventually released direct to video.) Don't get me wrong -- I actually really like Borchardt as a person, though Coven is probably be pretty unwatchable. In this documentary, you can see a struggling filmmaker whose film is effectively powered entirely by his unstoppable personality. American Movie was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.

This movie is fun, occasionally tinged with sadness, and ultimately uplifting. Watch it here until September 30, 2009. (Note: American Movie is Rated R, so you will need to have a YouTube or Google account to actually watch this one.) Meanwhile, watch the trailer below (the actual trailer starts about 30 seconds into the video):

Super Size Me

Morgan Spurlock's iconic 2004 documentary's concept is pretty simple: the director spends an entire month eating just McDonald's food. The results are alternately hilarious and disgusting, as Spurlock consumes over 5,000 calories per day and develops serious health problems during just one month. I feel some kinship with Spurlock, as he's from West Virginia (where my folks live), and he has cool facial hair. Anyway, watch Super Size Me in high resolution here or just watch below:

The Times of Harvey Milk

This Oscar-winning 1984 documentary follows the political life of Harvey Milk, who was San Francisco's first openly gay supervisor. Some of the footage from this film is reused in the recent Oscar-winning narrative film Milk. They're both worth watching, but I saw this one before I saw Milk. Both made me cry. Watch The Times of Harvey Milk on YouTube in high resolution here, or just watch it below:

Buena Vista Social Club

This 1999 documentary by Wim Wenders is named for the eponymous musical venue in Havana, Cuba. The film follows Ry Cooder, who brings together a laundry list of Cuban musicians to record an album (which I'm sure you've heard). The film is both about music (Cuban music, specifically) and the political situation in Cuba (specifically, how absurdly difficult it is for musicians to travel to Cuba from the US, despite being just offshore). Embedding on this one has been disabled, so you'll have to watch Buena Vista Social Club on YouTube here. But first, check out the trailer:

For More Free Documentaries...

First, check out YouTube's Documentary & Biography page. Next, check out Hulu's documentary page (they've also got Super Size Me, as well as The Future of Food which may be of interest). For past Documentaries I Like columns, here's the complete archive.

Got a great documentary to share? Leave the name and (if possible) a link 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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.