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The Late Movies: Musical Seniors

We all know that musicians like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are over-the-hill, but we usually don't hear about too many people rocking away into the golden years. Some senior citizens, though, are showing that you don't have to be young to be a rock star (or party like one).

The Zimmers

The Zimmers rocketed to fame with their cover of The Who's "My Generation" (above). The roughly 50-member band, formed for a BBC documentary, is touted as "the oldest band in the world" with a cumulative age of 3700. Their first album, "Lust for Life," also includes covers of The Alan Parsons Project's "Old and Wise" (below), Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," and the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right (To Party)," among others.

Young@Heart Chorus

The Young@Heart Chorus was also featured in a documentary. Formed in 1982 at a Massachusetts elderly housing complex, the group has been performing on stage since 1983. Their current members range in age from 73 to 89. Their cover of James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)" is above, while their cover of the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" is below.

Jerrie Thill

Jerrie Thill entered the commercial music business at age 18 and continued performing for more than 70 years. From 1984 until her death earlier this year, Thill performed every Sunday afternoon at the El Cid Restaurant in Hollywood, CA. Above is a video of a collaboration between Thill and songwriter/artist Allee Willis when Thill was 91 (in 2008); below is a video of Thill and Willis performing at the El Cid that same year.

Ruth Flowers, aka "Mamy Rock"

Ruth Flowers has taken the European party circuit by storm as DJ Mamy Rock. The 69-year-old English grandmother started DJ-ing after accompanying her grandson to a club for his birthday. Now, she's an in-demand DJ with tracks on iTunes. Above is the live premiere of her single "Still Rocking" at Magazzini Generali in Milan, Italy; below is a live video of her DJ-ing at Gold & Platinum in Geneva, Switzerland.

Known of a rockin' oldster we didn't mention here? Let us know in the comments!
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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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