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Bluegrass Covers

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I love bluegrass, and I love quirky, unexpected cover songs. Smash the two together and I’m in heaven. Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe described the genre as “Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound." Those aren’t words I would use to describe a lot of modern pop and rock music, but the incongruity of fiddles and distorted guitar, fat beats and down-home twang makes these bluegrass covers very endearing.

“Single Ladies”

The Cleverlys are a comedy-bluegrass group that, according to the band, is made up of members of a famed tobacco growing family from rural Cane Spur, Arkansas. They’re generally awesome, and their take on Beyonce is especially so.

“Creeping Death”

Iron Horse is a bluegrass band from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that has recorded bluegrass tributes to Guns N’ Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Van Halen and, um, the Goo Goo Dolls. I especially like their take on this Metallica song, the Biblical themes of which make it a natural fit for bluegrass.

“The Way You Make Me Feel”

When you think of the “King of Pop,” you don’t think of three goofy looking (naturally) white dudes cruising around small town America in the back of a pickup truck with a standup bass, but Honeywagon makes it work.

“Blinded by Fear”

Swedish death metal filtered through bluegrass sounds less like bluegrass and a little more like something gypsy punks Gogol Bordello might come up with. Still awesome.

“I’m on Fire”

This just wouldn’t be a Matt Soniak music post without some mention of The Boss, would it? Even more so than tackling death metal with banjos, this cover really changes the whole sound of the original song. Bruce’s version is cold, desolate, minimal and tight. In the hands of Town Mountain, though, the song is full, warm, inviting and even has a little bit of swing.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Centerfold”

Hayseed Dixie goes the extra mile on both these songs, not only having fun with the Queen classic and The J. Geils Band hit, but also making great videos for them. They ape the “floating faces” shots from Queen’s video and kick up the speed on Geils and company’s original video to sync with their faster version of the tune.

“I Gotta Feeling”

Given that it’s been played at every wedding reception I have been to in the last few years (and probably every one I haven’t been too, also), I get that this song is supposed to be a feel good, barn burning party anthem. But I didn’t get it. The Black Eyed Peas version doesn’t make me feel good, it doesn’t make me want to dance, and doesn’t make me think tonight’s gonna be a good night. It has all the charisma of a dead fish. Then, the Cleverlys took a stab at it and I got it! It’s fun, it’s funny and it makes me want to fill a mason jar with Cristal and hit the town with a banjo on my knee.

“Dancing in the Dark”

And one more Bruce song. This track from Born in the USA is a favorite around here, and the boys in Greensky Bluegrass do an admirable job with it. Bonus points for the great beard on the mandolin player.

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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]