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Music History #11: "The Ballad of Ira Hayes"

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“The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
Written by Pete La Farge (1963)
Performed by Johnny Cash

The Music

Folk singer and songwriter Peter La Farge packed a lot into his thirty-four years on Earth. The son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist was a Korean War vet, a rodeo cowboy, an actor, and a singer who was part of the Greenwich Village folk music boom in the early 1960s. He even co-wrote a song with Bob Dylan, called “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow,” which Johnny Cash recorded. It was Cash who also made La Farge’s “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” into the folk singer’s most famous song.

La Farge claimed that he was distantly descended from the Narragansett Indian tribe, and had a lifelong fascination with Native American traditions. So the tale of a Native American soldier who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima seemed like natural subject matter for him. Johnny Cash had the hit with it, but the song was also covered by Pete Seeger, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan.

The History

Ira Hayes was born in Arizona in 1923, into a community of Pima Native Americans. After Pearl Harbor, the 18 year old Hayes quit school and enlisted in the Marines. He excelled in parachute training, and his buddies in the service nicknamed him “Chief Falling Cloud.”

Stationed in the South Pacific, Hayes was part of a troop that fought several battles against the Japanese army. On February 23, 1945, he and five fellow Marines climbed Mount Suribachi on the tiny island of Iwo Jima to plant the American flag. The event, as captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal, became one of the most significant images of World War II, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that has endured in photographic (and later statue) form as a symbol of wartime bravery. (The famous photo was actually the second flag-raising of the day on Iwo Jima. The first was also captured on film, but didn’t have quite the same iconic composition).

Of the six men who planted the flag on Iwo Jima, three would later die in combat. The three survivors returned to the home front as heroes, decorated by President Truman and taken on a 32-city celebratory tour.

After the hoopla died down, they returned home. And that’s when the problems started for Ira Hayes.

The Reluctant Hero

Hayes had always been a quiet, introverted man, and back on the reservation he retreated further inside himself. He worked menial jobs. And despite the hundreds of letters he received, and the curious folks driving through the reservation hoping to meet the famous soldier, he kept to himself.

After he appeared in the 1949 John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima, in which he played himself, the pressures of his unwanted fame began to take their toll. Hayes turned to the bottle. He was arrested over fifty times for public drunkenness. Later he would say, “I was sick. I guess I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they’re not coming back. Much less back to the White House, like me.”

In 1955, Hayes drank himself to death. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

In 1959, Hayes’ plight was captured in a short story called “The Outsider” by William Bradford Huie. Two years later, the story was turned into a movie with Tony Curtis (the film, seen now, looks very un-PC: Curtis is done up in dark make-up and dyed hair).

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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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© 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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