The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, The Metal Years

Today on Network Awesome (warning: video auto-plays!), Heavy Metal Week continues with the classic documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, The Metal Years. Directed by Penelope Spheeris (who later directed Wayne's World), the film has been bootlegged for decades, and to my knowledge was never released on DVD. Today you can see the whole thing on YouTube.

The documentary features interviews with members of Aerosmith, Kiss, Megadeth, Poison, Motörhead, W.A.S.P, plus interviews with Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper...among others.

Decline is packed full of interviews with major heavy metal stars (Aerosmith, Kiss, Megadeth, Poison, Motörhead, W.A.S.P, plus Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper), as well as wannabe metal stars and metal fans. The most notable interview is the infamous "pool scene" in which W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes guzzles vodka while floating aimlessly in a swimming pool. Holmes declares himself "a full-blown alcoholic" and "a piece of crap" and discusses how he'll probably be dead within a decade, as his mother looks on from the side of the pool. It's a devastating interview that serves as the emotional core of the film, and it comes in the middle of a series of interviews that veer from light to dark with great skill. (Some have claimed that Holmes actually filled the vodka bottles with water -- this seems credible given the amount of liquor he appears to chug -- but regardless, the interview stands as a remarkably poignant moment in the film and it's clear that the man is utterly wasted.) At its heart, Decline is about the disconnect between image and reality -- and the heavy metal image of 1988 covered a series of devastating realities that are slowly disclosed as the film proceeds. As Holmes says: "I don't dig being the person I am."

In addition to the Holmes interview, there's a terrific sequence (starting about 48 minutes in) in which Ozzy Osbourne cooks breakfast and offers surprisingly cogent advice about being a professional musician. The sequence starts with Ozzy cracking a few eggs into a dish, his fingers tattooed and laden with rings, and his pack of Marlboros to the side. Osbourne is honest and clever in the interview, and admits that if he hadn't become a rock star, he'd probably be in prison. He goes on to explain the mistakes he made (both personally and in business), and says: "It's hard bloody work, and you've got to be a businessman. And I'm not a businessman, you know! I'm very fortunate to this day, you know, that my wife is my manager, you know, she knows the business, but I don't know the business side of rock and roll. I don't want to know it, either." The interviews with Alice Cooper and Dave Mustaine are more insightful (though not quite as funny), and it's clear that most of the men who have been in the business for a while have survived through a combination of wits and serious intestinal fortitude.

Warning: this movie is full of expletives, it's rated R, and there are some scenes of scantily clad ladies. As such it's NSFW, but I strongly recommend it for fans of documentary film and/or 80's metal. It is NOT for kids. The actual video is after the jump for all these reasons.

If you enjoy the film and want to know more, check out the A.V. Club interview with Spheeris or Janet Maslin's review from The New York Times, which includes this gem:

In Miss Spheeris's earlier hell-in-a-handbasket documentary, the original "Decline of Western Civilization" about punk rockers, the brainpower quotient was somewhat higher than it is among heavy-metal fans. That's one reason that the new film is both so funny and so sad. For all the amusingly fatuous remarks heard here -- and Miss Spheeris has a great ear for these -- the overriding dimness of most of the fans and musicians is frightening. The women are happy to be exploited, the men avid for new forms of self-destruction, and no one can see an inch beyond tomorrow.

That pretty well sums it up.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]