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Music History #12: "Vagabond Ways"

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“Vagabond Ways”
Written by Marianne Faithfull and David Courts (1999)
Performed by Marianne Faithfull

The Music

Wikimedia Commons

Marianne Faithfull has had many lives—60s-era folk singer, Swinging London swinger, girlfriend of Mick Jagger, and sadly, in the 1970s, drug addict and street person. But in the 80s, she made a comeback, reinventing herself as a jazzy cabaret singer. On the title track of her 1999 album Vagabond Ways, Faithfull was inspired by a news article about the enforced sterilization of undesirables in Sweden. The song was never a chart hit, but it remains a powerful part of Faithfull’s live set.

The History

Between 1935 and 1975, over 60,000 people living in Sweden were sterilized against their will. That may come as a shock, especially since Sweden has long been known as a bastion of liberal idealism and sexual freedom.

But in the early part of the 20th century, Sweden fell under the spell of “eugenics,” a scientific idea concerned with improving human population by controlled breeding. Or to give it a more chilling phrase: racial hygiene.

The word eugenics was coined by English anthropologist Francis Galton. A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton had taken a cue from a chapter on variation in breeding in Darwin’s Origin of Species. He then devoted his professional life to studying genetics and their effect on behavior and abilities. He believed that breeding within one race between healthy individuals created stronger, more eminent offspring.

In Sweden, two laws were signed regarding eugenics. The first, in 1934, allowed sterilization of the mentally ill and mentally retarded without any legal procedure. In 1941, a second law was enacted, setting forth grounds for sterilization for eugenic, social, or medical reasons. While in theory these laws were meant to prevent the transmission of mental illness, they soon became perverted into a different idea—to prevent the propagation of racially mixed people.

By the early 1940s, that meant that gypsies, vagabonds, deviants and anyone who didn’t fit into the Swedish mainstream. Even single mothers were soon obligated to sacrifice their reproductive freedom if they wanted to remain in Sweden. The pressure was severe. It was a case of “Sign this or you’ll get no social benefits, no vacation, no apartment. Sign this or we’ll take your kids away.” Basically, legalized blackmail.

Sweden was not alone in this. Norway, Denmark, and even the United States had their own sterilization programs. And of course, in the twisted hands of Germany’s Nazi Party, the eugenics idea was carried to massively tragic ends.

The issue resurfaced in the news in early 2012, when Sweden was criticized for refusing to update a 1972 law that requires all “transgender people to become sterilized before their gender reassignment will be formally recognized by the state.” Activist groups are currently fighting to have it overturned.

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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]