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11 Fun Facts about SXSW

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Tomorrow, the 2013 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival kicks off—and mental_floss will be there! Here are a few fun facts you might want to know about the Austin, Texas-based celebration of all things music, film, and interactive. 

1. SXSW started in 1987 as a music festival. There were 172 acts, and 700 people showed up. The keynote speaker was record producer Huey P. Meaux.

2. One rejected name for the festival was “Third Coast.” According to Roland Swenson, an employee at The Austin Chronicle—which created SXSW—it was editor and co-founder Louis Black who came up with the name. “After many hours of everyone trying out different names," Swenson recalled in 2001, "Louis Black, lying on his back on the floor, spoke the South by Southwest name for the first time, and we all seized upon it.”

3. The festival expanded into multimedia and film in 1994. In 1995, film and multimedia (it would be come interactive in 1999) split into their own separate conferences. Today, approximately 32,000 people attend film and interactive.

4. The original Alamo Drafthouse, on Colorado Street, opened in 1997, and screened Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men at SXSW that year. Since then, the Drafthouse has expanded to four locations in Austin (and other cities in the U.S.), where they inobtrusively serve food, booze, and delicious milkshakes while you enjoy a movie. They also have a strict no-talking, no-texting policy that sometimes results in customers being ejected from the theater. One customer left an angry voicemail that the Drafthouse then turned into a pre-movie "Don't Talk" bumper:

5. The first three years of SXSW Multimedia had panels called “The Web Is Dead?” and "So You Want to Make a CD-Rom?" The official festival email address was 72662.465@compuserve.com.

6. During SXSW Interactive 2012, festival attendees generated 4.7 profane tweets per minute, for a grand total of 33,860 profane tweets over the course of the 5-day conference.

7. From Iron Works to Stubbs, Austin is full of BBQ establishments, and during SXSW, they are hopping. To get a slab of brisket at Franklin BBQ—which opens at 11am—people usually line up before 9am; it’s not unusual for the restaurant to sell out of meat in under three hours. It takes around 18 hours to make Franklin’s brisket, by the way.

8. Twitter was introduced at SXSW in 2007, Foursquare in 2009.

9. Musicians that have been discovered or broken into the mainstream while playing at SXSW:  Hanson, John Mayer, James Blunt, Janelle Monae, Best Coast, The White Stripes, Veruca Salt, Polyphonic Spree—and many, many more.

10. Since 2008, actor Jeffrey Tambor—you might know him as Arrested Development’s George Bluth and the Larry Sanders Show’s Hank Kingsley—has run an acting workshop at SXSW. The session is described on the SXSW website as “Part one-man show, part seminar, part question and answer and endlessly entertaining.” Here’s some video from last year’s workshop:

11. These days, approximately 48,000 registrants come to Austin for SXSW. Not bad for a festival started by four guys in a newsroom.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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