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On Music: 5 other composers who went deaf

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Everyone knows that Beethoven wrote some of his most famous music after he'd already gone deaf. But guess what? He wasn't the only one. Here are 5 others you should know:

boyce.jpgLike Bach, William Boyce (1711-1779) made his living as a church keyboardist, but was also a master composer—one of the best to come out of England during the 18th century. Boyce went deaf and had to quit his job as an organist, but went on editing works by well-known composers like William Byrd and Henry Purcell.

Ignaz Holzbauer.gifA colleague of Mozart's, Ignaz Holzbauer (1711-1793) wrote about 70 symphonies and over half-a-dozen operas. During the last years of his life he was totally deaf.

Felix Draeseke.jpgFelix Draeseke (1835-1913) is most famous for his (remarkable facial hair) piano piece, Sonata quasi Fantasia, which was admired by Franz Liszt. Draeseke wrote operas and symphonies even though he suffered from a chronic hearing ailment that later left him almost completely deaf.

gabriel-faure-1.jpgGabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is best known for his gorgeous Requiem. Like Boyce, Holzbauer and Draeseke before him, Fauré went deaf later in life and had serious trouble hearing high and low frequencies.

smetana_bedrich1878.jpgPerhaps the best-known of the lesser-known composers to lose hearing late in life is the brilliant Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, who was already going deaf when he wrote his most famous piece, Má Vlast (My Country), a symphonic tone poem featuring a movement called Vltava, or "The Moldau." As he lost his hearing, Smetana also suffered from chronic tinnitus, which eventually caused him to go insane. In 1884, he died in a mental hospital in Prague. Oh joy"¦

As the name implies, "The Moldau" paints a musical portrait of the famous river that twists through the Czech Republic. Click the play button to hear an excerpt and be sure to Czech out Smetana's own description of "The Moldau" after the jump.

By the way, can anyone tell me which country's national anthem sounds similar to the Smetana tune and why?

Smetana's description: "The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St. John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vysehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Elbe."
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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