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10 Songs Bill Nye Made Educational

Bill Nye may have graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, but it wouldn't be too surprising if the Science Guy picked up a minor in parody songwriting along the way. For all but four episodes of his five-year stint on PBS, Nye capped off his show with a music video spoofing a pop song with an educational spin. With the 20th anniversary of his show (September 10) just in the rear-view mirror, here are 10 of fictional Not That Bad Records' greatest hits from the not-actually-real album "Soundtrack of Science."

1. Nyevana — "Smells Like Air Pressure"

For the show's 1993 pilot episode, Nye drew inspiration from the Seattle grunge rock scene, borrowing a page from the Kurt Cobain songbook to explain the properties of air pressure. "Smells Like Air Pressure" tips its metaphorical cap to the iconic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video, cheerleaders and all. Nyevana's shaggy blonde mane-sporting Cobain lookalike pumps the rock star's famously incoherent slurs with some serious educational clout — the chorus rambles with the lines, "Air has pressure, and it's moving / All around us, and it's grooving."

2. Bill Nye — "There's Science in Music"

Instead of employing a parody band to spoof The Rocky Horror Picture Show's "Time Warp," Nye flexed his own pipes in a musical number about sound waves titled, appropriately, "There's Science in Music." The Science Guy plays off Richard O'Brien's vocal delivery from the original "Time Warp," deadpanning the opening lines: "It's vibrations / Sonic sensations." And with a spot on the Dancing with the Stars roster for the show's 17th season, Nye proves he can cut a rug with some wobbly moves in the music video.

3. Sure Floats-a-Lot — "Bill's Got Boat"

An ode to the backside doesn't seem like spoofing material for a song about buoyancy, but while Sir Mix-a-Lot outed himself as a fan of female posteriors in his 1992 hit, Sure Floats-a-Lot gets "psyched" about learning how boats stay afloat in "Bill's Got Boat." The rap explains water displacement in a second-verse stanza that features some true hip-hop rhymesmithing: "Buoyancy's the name of this song / Don't even try to tell me I'm wrong / When something's placed in the water / It gets pushed down with this weight / Then gravity pulls / Science rules."

4. Momentisey — "The Faster You Push Me"

Nye's elastic sense of humor and off-the-wall personality don't exactly scream "let's parody Morrissey," but that didn't stop the Science Guy from riffing on the morose Smiths frontman's bleak "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" in an episode about momentum. Retitled "The Faster You Push Me" and shot entirely in black-and-white, and the show's Moz impersonator forces a British accent when he croons, "The faster you push me / The farther I get / You're adding velocity."

5. Steven Odd — "50 Fifty"

Having a song that teaches science students about probability through flipping coins be a "Loser" (alternative rocker Beck's 1993 hit) takeoff is a little oxymoronic—after all, there's only a 50 percent chance of being a loser when calling heads or tails in the air. But "50 Fifty" draws influence from Beck's laid-back flow and slide guitar instrumentation to inform viewers that "Probability depends on the circumstances / If I figure 'em out, then I'll know the chances."

6. Third Nye Blind — "Atoms in My Life"

Only Bill Nye could take a Third Eye Blind hit about battling a crystal meth addiction and reimagine it as a squeaky clean pop-rock romp about atoms and molecules. The Nye-ified educational revamp features lyrics like, "Those atoms are so tiny you never see them / Like hydrogen and carbon and oxygen," which are leaps and bounds more school-friendly than the original's not-so-oblique "The sky was gold, it was rose / I was taking sips of it through my nose."

7. Alice in Genes — "It's Called Genetics"

The band name spoof might be a little misguided (it riffs on Alice in Chains, though the song itself is a send-up of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name"), but Nye's musical explanation of genetics proved the show wasn't afraid to bust out some hard rock guitar licks for the elementary school crowd. Though G-rated compared to Rage Against the Machine's notoriously F-bomb laced anthem, the song finds ways to pump lines like "DNA makes you what you are / The apple from the tree doesn't fall very far" full of pre-teen venom.

8. The Bent Wavelengths — "Light and Colour"

A homage to Rage Against the Machine wasn't Nye's only foray into scholastic thrash metal, nor was it the first: the music video for the show's 16th episode ("Light and Color") paid tribute to Megadeth's "Sweating Bullets." The very Britishly-spelled "Light and Colour" (Megadeth hails from Los Angeles, oddly enough) features shredding guitar riffs and a yowling chorus of "Light, color / Talking about the spectrum, brother," sung by a wig-doffing Dave Mustaine double.

9. J.A.C.— "Water Cycle Jump"

What better way to explain the water cycle and the process of precipitation than in a goofy homage to Kriss Kross? "Water Cycle Jump" packs in some Bill Nye background dancing and zingers like "Your brain is on vacation / If you don't know about precipitation" in its minute-and-a-half run time, but Kriss Kross purists can sleep easy knowing that the original's "wiggity wiggity wack" line is well preserved. In the context of the water cycle, J.A.C. explains that when condensation falls, it's "riggida riggida riggida rain."

10. Slow Moe — "All in Motion"

Five years and 19 Emmy Awards since spoofing Nirvana, Bill Nye closed out his 100-episode run on PBS with the series finale about motion, and in it, a parody of Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher" called "All in Motion." A feature-length music video (spanning three minutes and twenty seconds), the song jumps from an acoustic guitar ballad to a squealing guitar solo voiced over by Nye. The song isn't as racy as the Van Halen original, but it does have lyrics like, "The more the mass / The more force you need / The more inertia / The more force you need."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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fun
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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