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The Late Movies: Happy Birthday, John Cusack!

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In 1989, the world fell madly in love with Lloyd Dobbler, a nerdy and adorable high school boy played by John Cusack in the 1989 movie Say Anything... Although Cusack's career has continued and risen steadily over the years, we all still love Lloyd Dobbler and consequently, Cusack. Today, he turns 44 and in honor of the occasion, we're offering a selection of clips from his best movies. Though there are certainly more than we can mention here, so if we left out your favorite, feel free to tell us in the comments.

Class

Cusack's silver screen debut came in 1983 when he starred as Roscoe Maibaum in this film, which also featured the debuts of actors Andrew McCarthy, Virginia Madsen, Lolita Davidovich, and Alan Ruck.

Sixteen Candles

Though his role was supporting, John Cusack was in one of the biggest teen movies of all-time. He played Bryce, a friend of Anthony Michael Hall (The Geek). You can catch him in this clip around the 1:20 mark.

Better Off Dead

High school student Lane Meyer, played by Cusack, becomes suicidal when his girlfriend breaks up with him.

Say Anything ...

This Cameron Crowe flick contains Cusack's break-out performance. This scene, featuring Cusack holding a boom box outside the window of his crush, has become one of the defining scenes of the teenage film genre.

Grosse Point Blank

As a professional killer, Cusack takes a vacation from his day job to attend his high school reunion.

Being John Malkovich

In this cult classic, Cusack plays a puppeteer who finds a portal to the mind of actor John Malkovich. It's totally weird. And totally awesome.

High Fidelity

Based on the book by Nick Hornby, High Fidelity chronicles the love life of Rob Gordon. Cusack also worked on the screenplay and served as co-producer. He was nominated for several acting awards for his performance.

Hot Tub Time Machine

Most recently, Cusack starred in this wacky flick about time travel and friendship.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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