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In 1967, Jimi Hendrix Opened for The Monkees

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It sounds like an elaborate joke today: legendary acid rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix working as the warm-up for a teenybopper group like The Monkees? But back in 1967, the pairing actually made a little bit of sense for both acts.

Micky Dolenz was the first Monkee to “discover” Hendrix; while visiting New York in the spring of 1967, a friend advised him to check out this amazing musician in the Village who played the guitar with his teeth. Dolenz was impressed but didn’t remember the guitarist’s name until he saw The Jimi Hendrix Experience onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival several months later. The Monkees were about to embark on a U.S. concert tour and Dolenz strongly recommended hiring Jimi Hendrix and his band as their opening act. Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith supported the choice; both were anxious to be accepted as serious musicians and believed that Hendrix would lend them some credibility among rock critics and older record buyers. “Besides,” Tork would later say, “it would give us the chance to watch Jimi Hendrix perform night after night!”

Jimi, on the other hand, thought The Monkees’ music was “dishwater,” but his manager convinced him to sign on for the tour. Hendrix already had three hits in England but was virtually unknown in America. His manager wanted to capitalize on the buzz generated by his client’s Monterey Pop performance, and The Monkees were just about the biggest act in the country at that time. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as it turned out.

Photo by Micky Dolenz; Jimi Hendrix jams after a Monkees show. Mike Nesmith is sitting next to him and Peter Tork is on the floor.

The Monkees’ young fans were confused by the overtly sexual stage antics of Hendrix, and when he tried to get them to sing along to “Foxy Lady” they stubbornly screamed “Foxy Davy!” The Jimi Hendrix Experience played just eight of the 29 scheduled tour dates; then, on July 16, 1967, Jimi flipped the Forest Hills, Queens, New York, audience off, threw down his guitar and walked away from Monkeemania.

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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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