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RIP, Sony Walkman

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Last Friday, Sony announced the end of the Walkman Era -- a period that lasted more than three decades, defining the personal music listening experience for pretty much everyone in my generation (I was born a year before the Walkman was). Sony will no longer produce the portable cassette-based Walkman, though they are still selling the CD-based Discman and MiniDisc Walkman. The Walkman was first introduced on July 1, 1979. Every five years (until 1999), Sony introduced an "anniversary model" Walkman. What happened next, according to Wikipedia:

However, cassette Walkman innovation would come to an end as during its 25th Anniversary, Sony chose to not introduce another limited run cassette model but instead, brought out the hard disk based NW-HD1 in 2004 to officially augur the death of the compact cassette. (Sony did release two anniversary models in 2003, but they were MiniDisc players — see below.) The last play-only cassette Walkman to be introduced (in North America, at least) was the WM-FX290, first sold in 2002, which also featured digital tuning, AM, FM, TV and weather band radio, operating on a single AA battery. In Canada, at least (where, like all portable radios distributed in that country, the WM-FX290 lacked access to TV and weather bands) this device appears to have ceased production as of May, 2006. In August 2006, Sony Canada began selling cassette Walkman personal stereos again, but this time they were only offering a basic model, the WM-FX197.

And another technological marvel bites the dust, with little ceremony, and with the news buried on a Friday.

The model I remember best looked a lot like the one pictured above (model WM-FX421), but was a few years earlier and lacked the LCD screen. I carried it through every day of high school, and kept a couple of mix tapes in my locker, along with a collection of REM and Simon & Garfunkel tapes handed down from my brother. I remember wondering why in the world my Walkman had so many radio presets, since there were only two or three radio stations I'd ever consider listening to. Anyway -- it worked great, I brought it to college, and I used that thing every day on my walks to and from campus. It was the machine that introduced me to the Pixies, my all-time favorite band. It was a very personal device, and it lasted much longer than any iPod I've ever had (and yeah, I've had a lot of iPods). I still have that Walkman -- it's in my basement. It still works.

What's Your Walkman Story?

The Walkman has inspired a lot of personal stories. My favorite so far is Stefan Sagmeister's personal account of listening to the Police album Synchronicity on a Walkman while riding a motorcycle -- one of his happiest memories (see his story here). What's your Walkman story?

Further reading: The Story Behind the Sony Walkman, Walkman History 101, and The Walkman Turns 30.

(Via CrunchGear.)

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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