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9 Questionable Choices for Previous Super Bowl Halftime Shows

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The NFL has announced that Madonna will be your halftime entertainment for Super Bowl XLVI in February. As the press release informs us, "Madonna joins an esteemed list of recent halftime acts that includes The Black Eyed Peas, The Who, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Prince, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and U2."

Here are some of the previous acts not being touted by the NFL this morning:

1. Be Bop Bamboozled in 3-D. Back in 1989, Super Bowl XXIII featured the first-ever network broadcast in 3-D, starring world-famous magician Elvis Presto (actually a Solid Gold dancer), who sings his whole magic schtick vaguely in the style of Elvis. This really happened:

2. Super Bowl IV in 1970 paid tribute to Mardi Gras at halftime with the vocal stylings of Carol Channing. She's a legend, but I have a hard time imagining Carol Channing capturing the attention of football fans.

3. In 1974, fans were treated to Judy Mallett, Miss Texas 1973, playing the fiddle. I guess Carol Channing was busy?

4. When Disney was in charge of the whole halftime affair in 1977, they took advantage of the situation to not only get the most annoying and repetitive song in the history of time stuck everyone's heads ("It's a Small World," of course), they also tried to cram the members of The New Mickey Mouse Club down America's throats. Despite featuring superstars like Lisa Whelchel (Blair from The Facts of Life) and Corey Feldman's older sister Mindy, the ratings for the Club were bad. The Super Bowl stunt didn't help - the show was off the air by June.

5. Disney trotted out "It's a Small World" again 14 years later. The 1991 halftime show was all over the place. Kids in random costumes, the Armed Forces tribute, "It's a Small World," NKOTB, giant Disney balloons… there's just so much going on in three minutes.

6. The Winter Magic halftime extravaganza featured a tribute to the Winter Olympics, including live performances from skating champs Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano. People were unimpressed, because this was the year the Wayans Brothers took a nice chunk of viewers away at halftime with a special episode of In Living Color.

7. Up with People, the famous non-profit that counts Glenn Close among its alums, provided the halftime entertainment for several shows in the '70s and '80s. This 1986 clip marks the last time they were the big draw. It's worth watching just for the high-waisted pants, neon sweatshirts and jackets with sleeves rolled to the elbow.

8. Nothing says football like a jazz clarinetist, am I right? Apparently the Super Bowl thought so, because the feature in 1973 was clarinetist, saxophonist and big band leader Woody Herman, along with the Michigan Marching Band, in an extravaganza called "Happiness Is."

9. OK, technically this was the pregame, but in 1977, the big act used to get everyone jazzed for the game? Ashley Whippet. A one-hit wonder singer? Nope: a dog who was really good at Frisbee. I mean, really good, I don't want to discount Ashley's athletic prowess. Ashley helped popularize the whole craze and was even the star of an Oscar-nominated 1977 documentary called Floating Free. But still… a Frisbee-catching dog as pre-game entertainment?

This article originally appeared after last year's Super Bowl

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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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