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The Late Movies: Steve Earle

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In February, I braved the frozen tundra of Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood to see Steve Earle in the intimate confines of the upstairs room at Johnny Brenda’s. I’ve been a fan of Earle’s for a long time and will happily, openly disagree with George Jones fans about who the “greatest living country singer” is, but seeing him in a small space, without a band and armed only with a guitar, a mandolin voice has only deepened my appreciation for him.

Earle isn’t really a household name, so to introduce him to fresh ears and draw any fans out in the comments, here’s a very subjective and biased “best of” selection. (If I didn’t include your favorite, don’t just whine about it. Put a link to the video in a comment!)

Copperhead Road

Probably Earle’s most well known song, “Copperhead Road” is also a good introduction to his style overall. Scotch-Irish musical elements? Check. Country and hard rock mashed together? Check. Story about outlaws and down-on-their-luck types? Check. References to the Vietnam War? Check.

Guitar Town

The title track from Earle’s debut album hews a little closer to a traditional country sound than some of his later work, but still hints at his melting pot of influences and styles enough that on his first tour to support the album he found himself sharing a bill with Dwight Yoakam one night and the Replacements on another.

Fort Worth Blues

When Earle was a teenager getting his start in Houston’s music scene, he met Townes Van Zandt. The cult country singer became a close friend, mentor and inspiration to Earle. Van Zandt died just a few days before Earle went on a European tour. When Earle got to Galway, Ireland, he wrote this song in tribute to his friend.

I Feel Alright

Earle released the album I Feel Alright soon after he got out of prison (the second of two “comeback” albums in a span of 18 months), and the title track has all the swagger of a man who can’t be beaten down.

The Devil’s Right Hand

Let’s switch it up and do a cover! While I like Earle’s original and Johnny Cash’s Unearthed version better than the Highwaymen’s take, I believe the respect of one’s peers is an important thing for an artist and I can think of few compliments bigger than having these four legends cover one of your tunes.

Steve’s Hammer

Earle is part of a long line of political musicians who sometimes use their songs as weapons in the war of ideas. Here, he takes things very literally and looks forward to the day when he doesn’t have to swing his “hammer” around and sing any more angry songs. I hope he’s not holding his breath.

The Galway Girl

Finally, here’s Earle as I saw him (I didn’t shoot the video), going to town on that mandolin and lamenting the blue-eyed, black-haired girl that got away.

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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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