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The Disney Click, Rerun, and More New Podcasts Worth Checking Out

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Tired of commuting to work in silence? Today I’m sharing a few new podcasts that may make your ears tingle. They run the gamut from retro TV to true crime, so I hope you find something up your alley.

For more podcast recs, visit the archive. Share your own tips via the comments or Twitter:

LIKE RETRO CULTURE? TRY THE THROWBACK.

Hosted by Eric Greenberg, The Throwback features interviews with notable figures from pop culture history.  The first episode might be hard to top: In it, Greenberg talks to actor Ken Osmond, best known for playing Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver

LIKE THE MOUSE? TRY THE DISNEY CLICK.

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This new podcast from Meltdown Comics explores all things Disney (which is quite a lot, since it also encompasses Marvel, Pixar, ABC, Lucasfilm, and your firstborn child). The last couple episodes offered lots of insight into the D23 convention, and I’m eager to see where they go from here. 

LIKE CLASSIC TV? TRY RERUN.

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BuzzFeed may have hit a homerun with Rerun, its new podcast about fan-favorite TV episodes. So far, host Doree Shafrir has talked Freaks and Geeks with Tavi Gevinson and Daria with Aminatou Sow

LIKE SERIAL AND WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE? TRY LIMETOWN.

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Limetown blends the most addictive elements of Serial and Night Vale to concoct an engrossing, entirely fictional mystery. (And since I live in Tennessee, I was particularly intrigued by the story, which follows the sudden, unexplained disappearance of 300 residents of a Tennessee town.) 

LIKE PROCEDURALS AND TRUE CRIME? TRY LIVE LAW.

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I quickly became a fan of this show, which is like a Law & Order-ized version of The Moth. In each ep, people discuss their legal entanglements in moving, funny, and very personal ways. All episodes so far have been great, though I’m partial to Skylar Fein’s skatepark story. 

LIKE GOSSIP? TRY THE PHP.

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The new podcast from Perez Hilton and Chris Booker focuses on celebrity gossip, but it’s not as mean-spirited as the Perez of yore (yay for progress!). Episodes feature caffeinated celebrity banter and interviews with Margaret Cho, Debi Mazar, and other notables. 

LIKE LIFE HACKS? TRY THE MOST USEFUL PODCAST EVER.

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Popular Mechanics’s new show wants to help us get things done. Episodes supply tips on things we can make (like a paddle board) and inventions that may or may not make our lives easier (like a new kind of earplugs).

LIKE HISTORICAL BIOGRAPHIES? TRY SOME VERY FAMOUS PEOPLE YOU’VE NEVER REALLY HEARD OF.

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It may have a long title, but this show offers thoughtful, condensed bios of people history books usually overlook. So far, host Philip Gibbons has spotlighted the incredible life of German Resistance fighter Mildred Harnack, among others. (And fun fact: Gibbons once won $500,000 on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.) 

LIKE TRUE CRIME? TRY DETECTIVE.

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The folks at Investigation Discovery know truth is stranger than fiction, and their new podcast proves it by handing the mic to Joe Kenda, a retired detective who spent 23 years working in the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Homicide Division. The result is engrossing, though not the kind of stuff you wanna hear during dinner. 

LIKE ARCHIVAL INTERVIEWS WITH LEGENDARY FIGURES? TRY WHAT IT TAKES.

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Finally, I’m loving the new podcast from the Academy of Achievement, which shares rare interviews with world-changing artists, politicians, and thinkers. I’d say the first ep, which spotlights a 1993 chat with Johnny Cash, is a must-hear.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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