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Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Jamming with the Boston Typewriter Orchestra

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Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Talking typewriters with the members of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra is like asking for a recommendation on a good Gibson guitar from Eric Clapton.

“The portable Remingtons, they have quicker key strikes, with a higher tenor note to them,” Brendan Emmett Quigley, a professional crossword puzzle maker and part-time musician, tells mental_floss. “A Smith-Corona Galaxy 12 has a power space function that makes a nice metallic clang sound.”

“Some don’t make enough noise,” adds member Jeff Breeze.

“Alex [Holman, a fellow member] is a pro at breaking them,” Quigley says. “He’ll hammer actual type on the type bar. There will be metal shears spiraling off onto the desk.”

The potential for protective eyewear is part of the deal for members of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, or BTO, a Boston-based musical group that summons the distinctive chirping noise of old manual typewriters to create catchy rhythms. Like something out of a 1940s montage on secretarial labor, the percussive clicking at one of their shows starts out haphazardly before slipping into sync. Melodies like “The Revolution Will Be Typewritten” and “Entropy Begins at the Office” are hammered out until some of them begin bleeding from their fingertips.

“It’s kind of like our own little fight club,” Brendan says. “You’ll see friends or colleagues and say, ‘You know, you should be part of this.’ And a certain type of person will go, ‘I need to be part of that.’”

Founded in late 2004, the origins of the BTO began in a diner. An artist named Tim Devin was drinking and was also in possession of a portable typewriter, which he began pecking at. When a waitress asked what he was doing, and possibly asking him to stop doing it, Devin replied that she shouldn’t worry: He was the conductor of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

Along with some friends, Devin took the joke and began to take it vaguely seriously, rehearsing with old manual typewriters and getting a feel for their musical abilities at private functions before officially debuting at the Art Beat festival in Boston in 2006.

“We played a little theater but wound up filling it up so it was standing room only,” Quigley says. From there, a rotating cast has performed between four and seven shows annually in and around New England, typically breaking up their sets with an irreverent “office” setting that both mocks and sympathizes with corporate culture.

“We’re sort of pulling from the collective unconscious about bad office jobs and office politics,” Alex Holman says. “It’s sort of an inscrutable performance.”

Word of mouth books most gigs for the Orchestra, which has appeared on National Public Radio and opened for musician Amanda Palmer in between gigs at poetry readings, libraries and clubs. (Quigley says they turned down a gig in Mumbai over a disagreement over travel expenses, but it’s not clear whether he’s serious.) “People hear about it and go, ‘We need to have this at our event,’” he says. Sometimes writing groups or typing-related functions invite them without realizing they really don’t write anything on the typewriters.

“We used paper early on but just got gobbeldygook,” Quigley says of the typed result of their jams. “Generally speaking, there’s no sound difference, so we stopped.”

Rehearsals are on Wednesdays. A two-hour practice might be “half beer drinking,” Holman says, and half actual composition. Attendance depends on whether any of the eight current members have other responsibilities. (Among their number: a librarian, an AIDS researcher, and a mortgage broker.) Some tunes have a spoken-word frame, while a few others contain vocals. “It’s a lot of taking a 10 to 15 minute-long groove and cherry-picking parts to make a performable song,” Holman says.

The group will perform next on December 21 at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, Massachusetts and is preparing to release their third album and first on vinyl, Termination without Prejudice, Volume 1, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. One new track, "Harold," will feature Holman on "lead roller bar."

“We know we’re a niche thing and we’re happy with that,” Quigley says. “I don’t think any of us could handle overnight success.”

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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]