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The Late Movies: MTV Unplugged

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MTV Unplugged premiered in 1989, showcasing musicians playing acoustic versions of their songs. It has spawned a series of memorable performances, most notably (to my generation, anyway), Nirvana's excellent set -- likely the first time a Leadbelly song was performed on MTV. So tonight, I bring you some of my favorite Unplugged moments. Share yours in the comments!

Oasis - "Don't Look Back in Anger" - 1996

Apparently lead singer Liam Gallagher bailed at the last minute, so his brother Noel went ahead and sang lead in brother's place. According to Wikipedia, "Liam watched the performance and heckled the group from a balcony." In this clip, Noel sounds great:

REM - "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" - 1991

"And this was a request of MTV, and we had to get the words on a computer, and I'm not sure they're right. But we're gonna give it a go, and here -- we -- go." One of many excellent performances from REM's Unplugged gig -- pick up the bootleg if you can find it. (Another standout is "Love is all Around", a Troggs cover.)

Nirvana - "The Man Who Sold the World" - 1994

Nirvana does Bowie. One of many remarkable covers in this Nirvana set. Look how young they all are.

Pearl Jam - "Black" - 1992

Sorry about the burned-in VTR playback timecode. I remember thinking Jeff Ament's hat was ridiculous, even way back then. I think my judgment holds up.

Chris Isaak - "Wicked Game" - 1995

Beautiful, and perfectly suited to the acoustic format.

Paul Simon - "Mrs. Robinson" - 1992

A little funky, and missing Garfunkel, of course. Compare to this 1970 live performance.

Sheryl Crow - "Leaving Las Vegas" - 1995

"I spent the best part of my losing streak in an Army Jeep, from what I can't recall." Catchy, a little sad around the edges, and smart -- I always loved this song, though this version is a little messy -- there are some tuning problems with Crow's guitar. It's still a gem.

LL Cool J - "Mama Said Knock You Out" - 1991

Unlike the Pearl Jam bassist, LL's hat is completely appropriate. Because he hasn't got a shirt on, and he's kicking ass.

The Corrs - "Everybody Hurts" (REM Cover) - 1999

I bet they didn't have to get the lyrics to this "on a computer." (Also check out their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams."

Post Your Favorites!

Got a favorite Unplugged performance I've left out? Post a link in the comments! See also: our MTV Unplugged: Revisited quiz.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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