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The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert Was 20 Years Ago Today

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On April 20, 1992, a veritable “Who’s Who” (and, in a few cases, “Who’s That?”) played before 72,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium to celebrate the life of Freddie Mercury and to raise funds for The Mercury Phoenix Trust, an AIDS charity organization that is still active today. Tickets sold out three hours after they went on sale, before any artists other than the remaining members of Queen had been confirmed to appear. It was an emotional day for all involved, and despite the best efforts of all the performers, the fans and critics agreed that even though he appeared only in video clips on the giant screens, it was Freddie himself who, one last time, stole the show. Here’s just a very brief recap of some of the more memorable performances that day:

Axl Rose and Elton John

Just days after Freddie’s funeral, Axl Rose phoned the Queen Productions office in London and told the band’s manager (regarding any sort of future tribute), “I don’t know what you guys are gonna do, but I’m in.” Rose had mentioned in a 1989 Rolling Stone interview that while growing up he’d always buy the latest Queen album when it was released, and that Queen II was his favorite. The Guns N’ Roses frontman was infamous for his many homophobic slurs in the press, so it was a particularly poignant moment during “Bohemian Rhapsody” when he embraced Elton John onstage.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4T_naBRNLlo

George Michael

Michael’s note-perfect recreation of Freddie’s live version of “Somebody to Love” convinced fans that this man probably spent many childhood hours in the mirror singing Queen songs into a hairbrush. Michael’s Tribute Concert performance was released on an EP called Five Live in 1993 and went to Number One on the UK charts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYAR8RigqDA

Extreme

Extreme had always listed Queen as one of their main influences, and that fact was never more obvious than during the Freddie Tribute Concert. Taking their cue from Queen’s Live Aid performance, they played a medley of hits that showed off their tight vocal harmonies. They also tossed in a snippet of fan favorite “Mustapha,” using it to segue into “Bohemian Rhapsody” as Freddie often did on tour.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00L_4GhiAJA

Robert Plant

One bittersweet treat for fans was hearing later Queen songs – those recorded after the band had stopped touring – performed live for the first time. Former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant gamely attempted “Innuendo” (the epic title song from the last Queen album released during Freddie’s lifetime), reading the lyrics from sheets taped to the stage floor. Plant had been just one of many stars who’d asked aloud during rehearsals, “How did he (Freddie) hit these notes?!” The Zep classics “Thank You” and “Kashmir” were less of a strain for his vocal range and after nailing those tunes he visibly relaxed before launching into “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7LM9s3Lm4A&feature=related

Roger Daltrey

Who singer Daltrey, no slouch himself when it comes to showmanship, described Freddie as “the best virtuoso rock 'n' roll singer of all time.” Roger chose to sing “I Want It All,” another tune that Queen had not previously performed live, and did a credible job with it. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath was also on hand adding his signature guitar wizardry.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXO6BYFDiC8

David Bowie

For a time after “Under Pressure” was released in 1981, Queen guitarist Brian May often imperiously referred to David as “Mr. Bowie” with just a hint of derision. Apparently during their time in the studio together, May got the feeling that Mr. Bowie was rather dismissive of guitarists in general. Luckily that hatchet was eventually buried and Bowie was welcomed to the Tribute Concert. He sang his own hit, “Heroes,” accompanied by former bandmate Mick Ronson on guitar. The two hadn’t performed together since 1973, and by this time Ronson was very ill with liver cancer (he would succumb just a year later). Between songs, Bowie knelt down and recited The Lord’s Prayer in tribute to both Freddie and another friend who was ill with AIDS at the time. Shrugged a confused May afterward, “He didn’t do that during rehearsals.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0fTEll9Fzk

Liza Minelli

Judy Garland’s daughter may have seemed like an unusual choice to sing “We Are the Champions” to the casual viewer, but Queen fans knew that the Broadway legend was one of Freddie’s main influences. “Liza, in terms of sheer talent, just oozes with it. She has sheer energy and stamina,” he once enthused in an interview.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwLoK0P-zpA

You can see who else performed that day over on Wikipedia. Forty years after their first album was released, Queen’s back catalog is still selling strongly. What’s your favorite Queen song? If you were organizing a similar tribute concert today, what song would you assign to, say, Lady Gaga? Or Adele? Or….(fill in the blank)?

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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