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The Late Movies: Even (Cow)girls Get the Blues

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Ransom and I have both done Late Movies posts on blues music before, and they've gotten great responses, so I won't fix anything that isn't broken. Tonight, though, is Ladies Night, featuring great blues musicians with two X chromosomes who've made their mark in a genre dominated by men. Hit it, ladies!

Big Mama Thornton - Hound Dog
Only hearing Elvis Presley's version of this song is sort of like only ever drinking light beer or eating imitation crab meat or jarred spaghetti sauce. Once you get a taste of the real thing, it's like you've been living life with the volume turned down and the color washed out. Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton recorded this Leiber and Stoller tune, which they brought in written on the back of a paper bag, in 1952. In the studio, Thornton worked the song like a ball of clay, playing around with the rhythm, adding extra bars to choruses, getting the band to bark and growl and moving the downbeat of her lines a round almost constantly. This video is from a live TV presentation of the 1965 European tour of the American Blues and Folk Festival, featuring Buddy Guy on guitar.

Mamie Smith - Crazy blues

Despite the fact that Mamie "The Queen of Blues" Smith wasn't much of a blues singer and only sometimes included blues numbers into her vaudeville act, she made history when she made the first vocal blues recordings by an African American in 1920. One of the songs recorded was "Crazy Blues," which sold a million copies in one year and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and chosen for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Ann Cole - Got My Mojo Workin'
Preston Foster's 1956 song "Got My Mojo Working" was first recorded by Ann Cole, and popularized by Muddy Waters a year later. When Waters attempted to copyright his modified version of the song, Waters' and Coles' record companies settled out of and the court the two versions are still separately copyrighted. Both versions have been covered by numerous artists, like Conway Twitty, Manfred Mann, The Zombies, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. For me, though, Cole's original stands well above the others.

Susan Tedeschi - Hurt So Bad
Susan Tedeschi (te-DES-ki) made her debut public performance at 6 years old in a Broadway musical. She later got her B.A. in musical composition and performance from the Berklee College of Music and immersed herself in the Boston blues scene. Since the release of her second album, Just Won't Burn, she's become one of the most recognizable women in blues. Here she is live at the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, Rhode Island in 2007.

Koko Taylor ft. Little Walter - Wang Dang Doodle
Chess records songwriter Willie Dixon wrote "Wang Dang Doodle" for Howlin' Wolf, but both Wolf and Dixon wound up hating it. For whatever reason, the versions recorded by women (Koko Taylor, the Pointer Sisters, PJ Harvey) tend to be better than those done by men (the Grateful Dead, Ted Nugent).

Cassandra Wilson "Death letter"
Grammy winner Wilson is better known as a jazz singer and her version of Son House's signature "Death Letter" manages both to reflect her background and amplify the emotional weight of the song.

Gillian Welch - Elvis Presley Blues + The Weight (w/ Old Crow Medicine Show)
Gillian Welch is a little bit of country, a little bit of Appalachian folk, a little bit of blues and a little bit of bluegrass, depending on the song, but she's always sparse, always dark and always just a little bit unnerving, which is sort of how my favorite musicians, blues or otherwise, tend to be. Both of these songs come from the BBC Four Sessions in 2007.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]