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Armchair Field Trip: Lollapalooza

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Last year was my first Lollapalooza ever. It's been around since 1991, but let's just say there's no way my parents would have let me go back then. At the time, it was created by Perry Farrell as a farewell tour for Jane's Addiction. So much for farewell - it ran for the next six years. Then it took a little hiatus, but came back in 2003. The results were not that great, and in 2004, ticket sales were so dismal that the shows had to be canceled altogether. In 2005, though, Farrell tried again, this time turning the tour into a three-day show that stayed in one spot - namely, Grant Park in Chicago. It was a big hit and a deal was inked just last year to keep the festival in Chicago through 2018.

But back to 2009. The Friday that marked the start of the weekend felt more like Woodstock '94 than Lolla '09 - it was a rainy, muddy, PR nightmare. Despite the rain, my Friday band highlight was definitely Heartless Bastards. I couldn't see much over the sea of umbrellas, so I headed for the Hammock Haven to listen while relaxing in the luxurious comfort of a sodden tangle of ropes. Would you believe I didn't have to fight anyone for a spot? At any rate, Heartless Bastards were very good - part blues, part rock, with a female lead singer who has a kind hoarse voice like she has spent a lot of time trying to entertain the patrons of smoky bars. And she probably has. One review I read compared her to Melissa Etheridge, and I'd say that's accurate, except Erika Wennerstrom is grittier.
My favorite: "All This Time" from the album of the same name (it's a couple years old).

The non-music highlight of Friday was getting into a media pre-party at the Hard Rock Hotel. I've never been privy to this sort of thing before, so I was very impressed with the swag and the free food and drinks. Swag? Yes. Very unexpected swag. Apparently Dickies isn't just for farmers and mechanics any more. I guess I sort of knew this, but I always figured you see famous people wearing Dickies more for the irony of it than anything else. But they have some pretty cool clothes; I was delighted by the pair of skinny jeans I got. And my husband picked up one of those plaid snap-on shirts even though he already has a whole closet full of them. We're calling it his Sam Merlotte shirt.

Lolla performers got even cooler perks, including free tattoos. I guess it's kind of good that the gratis ink was only for the artists... who knows what I would have walked out with when presented with the prospect of a free, spontaneous tattoo.

goodicebunnySaturday afternoon was the Playboy party. I suspected that I wasn't cool enough to be there, and I was sort of right and sort of wrong. I definitely didn't fit in with the hipster reporters who were sitting in overstuffed chairs wearing sunglasses, skinny jeans and flannel shirts while writing notes about a possible Vanessa Hudgens expose (really); I also didn't stick out as badly as an older couple dressed like they were attending an afternoon wedding in the Hamptons. I also suspect it wasn't the type of party Hef has at Playboy West - there weren't any bunnies and no real shenanigans occurred. Mostly it was just media and artists who were pretty excited to get some free booze. The view was to die for, though, and the ice sculpture Bunny logo was pretty sweet. They were pouring shots of SoCo down the side of the bunny but I shudder just thinking about Southern Comfort. Various DJs were there throughout the day, but everyone crowded into the room when DJ MomJeans showed up AKA Danny Masterson from That '70s Show.

arctic monkeysMy Saturday music highlight were the Arctic Monkeys, for sure. I'm not sure if they would be flattered or appalled to know that I consider their music to be ideal for runs, but they were pretty good even though my feet weren't pounding the pavement. And they stunned me with they started with a sort of gothic-sounding, organ-heavy song called "Pretty Visitors," which is apparently off of the new album that conveniently was just recently released. If you remember how much I love the Haunted Mansion, you might understand my glee. I will definitely be downloading the new disc.

My husband would tell you that the Saturday music highlight was Tool. Tool isn't really my genre of music, but the show was pretty interesting and the lead singer (Maynard) did most of it wearing nothing but his boxers. Also, at one point, the girl behind me said, quite seriously, "I'm so excited I could just bite something right now." That made me a little nervous.

The Field Museum and its awesome pirate wares beckoned us Sunday morning, but we managed to pull ourselves from the Whydah in time to see Vampire Weekend Sunday afternoon. I fully expected VW to be my favorite of the day - yes, my favorite band headlined the night shows, but I have seen The Killers several times so I was really looking forward to hearing another one of my favorites for the first time. And they were good - they only have the one album out so they pretty much played all of their songs, with a sneak peek or two of some new stuff they're working on. But the unexpected, amazing and all-around badass performance of the day has to go to Snoop. Sunday was so hot and humid, and despite being on the lake, Grant Park was just stifling. The air movement was pretty minimal, and three days of being out in rain and humidity and heat was definitely taking its toll on people. Everyone around us was just beat. People were napping on the ground and others just looked weary and ready to get back to their 9-to-5s. But then Snoop hit the stage, and the place just lit up. Figuratively and literally. People were dancing (badly, but with abandon), people were singing, people were frolicking, people were doing handstands. It was impressive how fast Snoop turned the entire crowd around, and you couldn't look at the crowd and determine any sort of stereotypical Snoop fan. He had 'em all in the palm of his hand. And I'll be damned if the entire crowd didn't know a vast majority of the words to "Gin and Juice."

So, that's a short summary of my Lolla experience. It was rainy and muddy; it was hot and humid. I didn't get to see all of the bands I wanted to see, but I did get to see some I didn't intend to and ended up loving them (Santigold would be one of these).

Anyone else go? Or have you been before? Share your Lollapalooza experience in the comments!

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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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Opening Ceremony
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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]