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Mouthing Off: The Art of Prairie Home Companion's Fred Newman

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http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/

Interviewers often fail to describe Fred Newman.

He’s been called a mimic, an actor, and a saboteur of modern communication. The collection of things he does for a living is somewhere between acting and music, spontaneous humor and carefully constructed art: As the chief sound effects man on the NPR radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, he is responsible for all the honks, whistles, drips, bubbles, typewriter clicks, dog barks, and helicopters that color the world of host Garrison Keillor’s storytelling. The magic of Newman’s performances, however, is that these sounds come not from digital files or hidden noisemaking gadgets, but straight from their creator’s mouth.

“[My mother] wants a couple of words for the bridge club, and I tell her, ‘just tell them I honk for a living,’” said Newman in an interview for Sacramento’s KXJZ Radio. He is one of the most successful living practitioners of the old American folk art called “mouth sounds,” in which the cheeks, tongue, teeth, windpipe, and fingers become a sounding board for everything from bulb horns to trumpeting elephants. Over his years on Prairie Home, his innovative ear, nose, and throat have been responsible for angry cats, cell phones, laser printers, Minnesota winter, whales, motorcycle crashes, and (my personal favorite) a California Condor being flushed down a toilet. No other NPR luminary alive can imitate the sinking of the Titanic in less than 30 seconds.

“My first ten or twelve years I was just on ‘record’” for sounds and stories, Newman remembers. He first discovered the magic of vocal storytelling growing up in rural LaGrange, Georgia, where he spent hours as a “snaggle-toothed, freckle-faced kid” of the 1960s mesmerized by stories told on the noisy porch of Jack Fling’s Cash-and-Carry Grocery.

Newman carried such gems as the saga of Knuckles the cat and the bicycle horn honk, taught to him by a blind man, through several years of Harvard Business School, a stint at Newsweek magazine, and a job as a blacksmith in Finland, before an audition for the David Letterman show landed him in his own brand of whimsical voice acting. He has also worked with Muppet master Jim Henson and recorded sound effects for shows like Nickelodeon’s Doug series and the PBS children’s reading show Between the Lions.

“It’s all about pretending,” Newman has said.  He can imagine and convey the exact thickness, age, and force behind a door creaking open with his voice. He mimes trumpet valves and violin fingerings with his hands whenever he mimics a musical instrument. For someone who must listen closely to the world in order to keep making his living—he even bikes to and from his home in Manhattan without a helmet so as not to miss any of the sounds around him—even silence has a sound. One of his favorite example stories is of a small brown rabbit popping its head out of a hole into a lush world of snowy silence that Newman creates with the breath in the back of his throat.

On the radio, this kind of imagination is doubly important—without a visual medium to flesh them out, Garrison Keillor’s characters and happenings in the fictional Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon and elsewhere exist only in the teller’s words and Newman’s evocative grunts and whistles. Since fellow soundman Tom Keith passed away in 2011, he has been running the racket alone, but has lost none of the joy in the auditory landscape he creates.

In his how-to book of the craft, Mouthsounds, Newman writes that "sound-making, like life, requires a playful, fearless spirit; you have to be willing to look and sound like a moron and act in exactly the manner teachers told you not to." Direct from the perpetual kid who once drove his teachers to early retirement with trumpet fanfares and buzzing flies, the book includes directions for over 200 mouth sounds and the facial contortions that often accompany them. Effects range from 1 to 4 in difficulty, with one challenging five (a double nose whistle that would give R2D2 a headache.) All are suggested for party tricks, acting exercises, coded communication, and, above all, for public performance. The back cover, appropriately, promises that “elevator rides will never be the same.” If you follow the master’s advice to stuff a duck and a set of bagpipes up your vocal sleeve, nothing ever will be.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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