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The Late Movies: 10 Great Documentaries You Can Watch Right Now (on Netflix)

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If you haven't discovered Netflix and its instant streaming feature yet, it's pretty magical. I watch so many more movies now because of it -- and I'm much more quick to turn off the ones I'm not enjoying than I would be if I were renting the movies on physical discs, which means I end up trolling through a lot of crap to find the gems. It just so happens that I love documentaries -- especially dark, gritty ones -- and lucky for me, Netflix has plenty of them. Of the dozens and dozens I've watched all or part of over the past six months or so, I wanted to share the true standouts here.

GOD GREW TIRED OF US
There have been many documentaries about the conflict in Sudan and the many refugees it's produced, especially the (in)famous Lost Boys. This is easily the best of them. A fascinating look at the culture shock some of the boys experience when they come to America -- and how it's a more difficult place to succeed than they had imagined.

WHICH WAY HOME
It follows a group of kids from Guatemala who try to cross into the United States. If you liked Mary Full of Grace or Sin Nombre, this movie is just as gripping -- and it's real.

THE PARKING LOT MOVIE
This surprising little film documents the life of a parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the over-educated grad students, poets and philosophers who bide their time manning its gate. Hilarious, thoughtful, and charming.

SMASH HIS CAMERA
The life and times of the world's first famous Paparazzo, whose shots of Jackie O and Marlon Brando earned him lawsuits, restraining orders and a broken jaw.

MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN
Easily the most heart-rending documentary I've seen in a long time. Three generations of a white farming family in Zimbabwe fight for their land and their lives as Robert Mugabe's thugs try to intimidate them.

KURT COBAIN: ABOUT A SON
In a series of evocative interviews with rock icon Kurt Cobain, journalist Michael Azerrad captures the late artist's inner thoughts and personal memories about life, music, success and failure. Director AJ Schnack assembled intimate conversations into a poignant portrait of a creative genius and young man in pain. This emotional blend of imagery, music and voice about the infamous and elusive artist is a 2007 Independent Spirit Award nominee.

THE GARDEN
Filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy's politically charged, Oscar-nominated documentary follows a group of low-income families struggling to protect a 14-acre urban farm in the middle of South Central Los Angeles from bureaucratic real estate developers. A lightning rod for controversy in 2004, this cause célèbre drew the attention of numerous activists and politicians, including Dennis Kucinich, Joan Baez and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigoisa.

CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY
A really insightful and well-made film about the Jack Abramoff scandal -- and Abramoff's life -- which has pretty much convinced me that money -- especially money in politics -- is the root of all evil!

FREAKONOMICS
So much fun! So thought-provoking! Based on the best-selling book, it's divided into chapters, each directed by a different well-known documentary director.

WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP
This is a weird one. Based on the found photography book of the same name, it's an experimental documentary that blends old footage and new -- evocative and dark, definitely a mood piece. Can't find a trailer for it -- just trust me!

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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