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The Late Movies: Cover Songs I Didn't See Coming

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Sometimes you can see a cover coming a mile away. I know "Twist and Shout" was the first song Bruce Springsteen learned to play on the guitar, so when the E Street Band plays it live, I'm not exactly surprised. There are times when a musician or a band covers a song, though, and I'm absolutely flabbergasted. Sometimes it's because the song is played in a style far removed from the original. Sometimes it's because the two artists' music, style and personalities seem at odds. Sometimes it's simply because I didn't know that artist loved that song so much. While the Boss' rendition of "Twist and Shout" is pretty good, it's covers like these "“- the ones that come seemingly out of left field "“- that can really put a smile on your face.

"The Wizard" - Ahmet Zappa, Dweezil Zappa and John Tesh

John Tesh is a pianist and a composer and performer of pop and contemporary Christian music. He toured with Yanni. He played a Klingon in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He actually released an album called Sax on the Beach (and you thought that was just a Simpsons joke!). Making fun of him is sort of like unleashing the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and Russia on a single barrel of fish. He is, to say the least, a little uncool.

Every dork must have his day, though, and one night on Conan, Tesh got to sit at the cool kids' table and jam on some Black Sabbath with Frank Zappa's boys. The keytar finally makes sense to me.

"Romeo and Juliet" - The Killers

Brandon Flowers is correct on two points here: Dire Straits' "Romeo and Juliet" is one of the most beautiful songs you will ever hear, and his band probably could not do it justice. I'll tell you what, though. Never in the Killers' jittery, 80's-style alterna-rock did I get a whiff of the kind of deep, abiding love for the Dire Straits that they're talking about here, and anyone who loves "˜em like that is alright with me. No one could do this song justice, but we can't blame the kids for trying.

"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" - The Cardigans

There are three kinds of bands that come out of Sweden: Phenomenal death metal bands, terrible death metal bands and bands that remind you of ABBA if only because they're from Sweden and don't play death metal. The Cardigans are in the third category and are best remembered for their first international hit, "Lovefool." If you're in the vast majority of people that remember them only for this, then it might shock you that not only did the Cardigans make music before and after "Lovefool" and are actually still around, but they put a Black Sabbath cover on their debut album. It actually sounds pretty awesome with sugary sweet vocals and Rhodes piano.

"Oops! I did it again" - Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson has earned an Orville H. Gibson award for his acoustic guitar playing, an Ivor Novello Award for his songwriting and a lifetime achievement award from BBC Radio. He has never shaved his head nor shown his genitals in public (at least that I'm aware of). He's about as un-Britney as one can get, and yet, he makes the song his own.

"2 Become 1" - Paul Gilbert

Paul Gilbert is regularly included on those "Greatest Shredders of All Time" and "Fastest Guitarists of All Time" lists. It's true; he's pretty good. Like, mile-a-minute-fret-board-melting-OMG-how-many-hands-does-this-guy-have good. (Also: former member of Mr. Big, but we can see past these things). You really want to think that this Spice Girls cover going to be some self-indulgent technical exercise where he noodles all over the song, and it is, but only at the end (followed by a special surprise). For the most part, it's pretty faithful to the original, and the way he talks at the beginning of the video makes it seem like he genuinely loves the song, which is sort of endearing.

"Breakin' the Law" - The Supersuckers

The self-proclaimed "Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World" have been known to make occasional forays into country music. With this song, they drag Mr. Rob "the Metal God" Halford, kicking and screaming with them.

"Fat Bottomed Girls" - Oxford University's Out of the Blue

The fine young gentlemen of Oxford University "“- who, in my mind, still considered powdered wigs and breeches "casual attire" "“- recite the lyric "left alone with big fat fanny/she was such a naughty nanny/heap big woman you made a bad boy out of me" and all is right with the world.


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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]