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Chris Hornbecker

Carrie Brownstein Rules at Everything

Original image
Chris Hornbecker

On Portlandia, Carrie Brownstein demonstrates that with a little persistence, anyone can pickle anything. In real life, the indie-rock star turned music critic turned sketch comedian proves that the same general principle applies to mastering an art form—or a racquet sport.

There's a 12-piece polka band setting up in Carrie Brownstein’s neighborhood dive bar when we pop in on a Saturday afternoon in November. We’re looking for a quiet place to chat after our photo shoot, and this is not that place. “It’s like an episode of Portlandia!” says the 39-year-old cocreator and costar of IFC’s hit television sketch show, which lovingly satirizes modern life at urban hipness ground zero.

That Brownstein has enough energy to summon a joke is amazing. She was out the night before at a wrap party. Portlandia’s fourth season just finished three months of filming, and she spent that time in “a state of mania,” on set 12 hours a day, jumping between two or three locations, playing four or five characters (requiring at least that many wig changes). At times like this, she says, “I don’t need to sleep as much. I don’t need to eat as much. I exist on a level that’s fervent and restless.”

If you’ve paid attention to Brownstein’s career, that explains a lot: She seems to have the superhuman ability to master whatever she pursues. Portlandia is just one line on her résumé. She’s also a guitarist and singer who spent a dozen years co-fronting the celebrated indie-rock band Sleater-Kinney. Not long ago, she released another critically acclaimed album with a different band, Wild Flag.

And as if that weren’t enough multitasking mastery, she’s about three quarters of the way through writing a new album—one she won’t say much about except that she’s working with people she’s worked with before, which is enough to make a Sleater-Kinney fan’s heart skip a beat. In her free time, she’s working on rewrites of a memoir.

“I would describe her style as ‘Keep going, then go more, then let’s do this, then let’s think about that, and then here’s another idea,’” says Fred Armisen, her Portlandia partner. The verb Brownstein uses to describe her work life is vacillate. But switching from acting to music to writing doesn’t feel like shifting existences. “It’s coming from the same place of energy and intention and drive,” she says. “It’s easy to take lessons from one discipline and apply them to another.”

Although she comes across as a perfectionist—she speaks in thoughtful complete paragraphs—Brownstein’s training has been ad hoc. As a self-proclaimed drama nerd growing up outside Seattle, she went to theater camp and acted in school plays but was “diffident and awkward” on stage. Something about it appealed to her anyway. “There were moments that I could transcend that and sense that the stage was a place you could step outside yourself,” she says. “It was music that got me further outside, to that place of fearlessness or trying not to care what people thought.”

At 14, she saved up babysitting money to buy a guitar, enlisting a neighbor to teach her chords. She played in a riot grrrl band called Excuse 17 at Evergreen State College in the early ’90s and then, from 1994 to 2006, in Sleater-Kinney, a tight trio that, over the course of seven albums, transcended punk rock to become a staple of critic’s-pick lists. Greil Marcus, in Time, called them the best rock band of 2001, and Rolling Stone declared Brownstein one of “the 25 most underrated guitarists.”

But even at Sleater-Kinney’s pinnacle, Brownstein’s interest in acting didn’t recede. In Portland for a summer in the early 2000s, she and her friend Miranda July, the writer and performance artist, embarked on a course of study that could double as a segment from Portlandia. They collected a group of seven or eight acquaintances into what Brownstein describes as a “folksy, casual, almost self-undermining” theater group. Each week, a member was tasked with coming up with a lesson plan. He or she would go out and buy a book on acting technique—Meisner or Stanislavsky—and teach it to the group through improv activities.

July was fond of using psychoanalytic ’70s board games she found at thrift stores. “We’d just pull the cards out and sit around someone’s living room or backyard and play out these scenarios,” Brownstein laughs. But the endeavor wasn’t a joke. “It was a way of dealing with tedium but also acknowledging a kind of ambition we had. It was a way of taking risks couched as silliness.”

It was her first experience publicly embracing awkwardness—of harnessing the power of those little moments of clumsy uncertainty. In Sleater-Kinney, she says, “We were OK with being disarming, but you didn’t want to be awkward.”

Portlandia’s impulse is the opposite. Its humor is predicated on a layer of clumsiness, on dipping a toe into real life’s often uncomfortable current. To Brownstein, it’s why the comedy works. “Clunkiness can be charming if it’s married with intention and bravado,” she says. “It’s OK to embrace the parts that seem mismatched. That’s when you surprise people. It’s very hard to surprise people.”

People who knew Brownstein as a serious rock star were surprised when she started popping up in goofy online improv videos with Saturday Night Live’s Armisen in 2005. With Sleater-Kinney winding down, Brownstein was looking for other things to do. In the ensuing years, she contributed to NPR’s All Songs Considered, volunteered at Portland’s humane society (she’s good at training dogs), and, even briefly, worked a day job at the hip Portland ad agency Wieden+Kennedy. (“I was dreaming of corporate lunches,” she told NPR’s Peter Sagal in 2012. “But it turns out I’m not very good at working with a traditional boss.”) She and Armisen met at an SNL after-party (he was a Sleater-Kinney fan, wearing a button with her face on it) and became fast friends. Their comedy duo, ThunderAnt, made satirical sketches about snooty foodies, uptight feminist bookstore employees, and bloviating performance artists—a rough draft of Portlandia, which debuted in 2011.

If Brownstein’s new role as comedic actress was incongruous—this cool rock star wearing a fake mustache in a crude rendering of a muscle-head boyfriend—it was also totally hilarious. She eased into the role with such charm and shared such obvious chemistry with Armisen that the juxtaposition was hardly jarring. Together, they’re the Lucy and Desi of the YouTube era.

Brownstein also found familiarity in the process. To her, writing a song and writing a sketch are similar exercises. “There’s a moment of vulnerability when you present your ideas to someone else,” she says. “I like the sense that the idea is not fully formed until it’s been added to or rethought or restructured with collaborators. If you’re working with people you trust and admire, there’s an implicit awareness that the idea will actually be better once everybody chimes in.”

This makes writing her book both the least collaborative of her pursuits and the most challenging. After she finished filming Portlandia’s third season, Brownstein turned her focus to writing the first draft of her memoir. Being alone with a laptop can be intimidating. “All the onus and drive is whatever is inside me every morning, and sometimes it’s not there,” she says of writing. “I’ve never known procrastination greater.”

After rejecting the loud dive bar, we end up across the street at a bicycle shop that serves espresso and flights of beer on skateboards. “That is such an unnecessary presentation,” she laughs. “People always ask if Portland is like Portlandia, and I say it’s weirder.”

The show may be a skewering send-up of hipster culture, the earthy, overearnest, faux-inclusive Portland variety in particular, but it’s also a loving homage to the city and its people. It’s the kind of good-natured teasing that can only come from a place of genuine investment. Brownstein cares deeply about the city she’s called home since 2000. It’s not just the small-town outsider spirit that lets things like backyard theater groups arise. There’s also an enduring faith in the future and in community—something the show gently lambasts as “the dream of the ’90s”—but which for Brownstein is still an important motivating force.

“I want others to feel a sense of ownership. I like to feel invited into a space, whether that is a creative space or a dialogue with art or culture,” she says when asked whether it’s important that her work have underlying politics. “It doesn’t have to be overtly political. It doesn’t have to be aggressive or contrarian. But I like something that posits a question, something that foments engagement and loyalty. We’re in an age of dabblers. There are so many dabblers. To have something that somebody wants to engage and reengage with is exciting.”

For Brownstein even dabbling is a chance to gain a new proficiency. She won a ping-pong tournament a couple of years ago. She’s “entranced” by sociolinguistics, which she studied in college. She recently accidentally mastered slam poetry. (“I started extemporizing slam poems in jest and then started to get pretty good at them.”) When I ask Armisen whether there’s anything Brownstein can’t do, he says, “She cannot bring liquids, aerosols, or gels onto a commercial aircraft if they are not consolidated into one bag and X-rayed separately.”

“I’m not very good with stillness,” Brownstein says. But curiously, this hasn’t turned her into a classic multitasker. She’s more like a serial tasker—a master of prioritization with an ability to focus intensely on one thing at a time. And it’s clear she’s careful to concentrate on what’s truly important to her while letting the rest—namely cooking and yoga—fall by the wayside. “I want to be present in everything I do,” she says. “That’s the only limitation I set for myself.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here. All photos by Chris Hornbecker.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]