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Calculating the Moby Quotient

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If you spent your musically developmental and formative years in the basement of a college radio station, you know the satisfaction that comes from championing some unknown alterna-electro funk band from Portland. With this satisfaction comes the devastating emptiness when they inevitably sell their catchy debut single to Mitsubishi for use in a commercial for a sedan with above average gas mileage. The rise of illegal downloading, the shrinking of radio playlists, and the decline in CD sales have forced many artists to "sell out," often in television commercial form, to make ends meet.

The Washington Post recently enlisted an expert in hyperbolic geometry (!?!) to devise a formula that equates the precise degree of sell-out your favorite garage band has committed, bringing new meaning to the subgenre specific term math-rock. The mathematical result is represented by the Greek letter mu, here as "The Moby Quotient," named for the electronic artist that (in)famously sold every single last song on his 1999 album, Play, to varying commercial interests.

Being an expert in both barely relevant indie-rock minutiae and crippling sell-out related heartbreak, I've compiled a list of the most egregious offenders and punched their stats into the sell-out calculator.

Of Montreal for Outback Steakhouse

Song: "Wraith Pinned to the Mist (And Other Games)"
Not only did Of Montreal allow the steakhouse to use the song, they also changed the words from "Let's pretend we don't exist/Let's pretend we're in Antartica" to "Let's go Outback tonight/Life will still be there tomorrow." Nothing says 18 oz. rib eye medium-rare like Indie-pop!!

Mu =114.98

Devo for Dell Computers

Song: "Watch Us Work It"
Certainly tired of being portrayed as a chubby guy in a suit in Apple commercials, PC company Dell has turned to the next logical place "“ satirical social commentary disguised as angular new wave punk. The Devo track "Watch Us Work It" appears here hawking laptops.

Mu = 39.51

Nick Drake for Volkswagen

Song: "Pink Moon"
This Cabrio commercial not only sold lots and lots of cars. In a perfect stroke of synergy, it also sold lots and lots of Nick Drake albums. The relatively obscure English folk songwriter developed an American cult following based on the success of this advertisement featuring his song "Pink Moon". This commercial was also directed by Little Miss Sunshine duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris.

Mu = 29.46
(let's not be so hard on him, he'd been dead for over 25 years when the commercial aired)

Sting for Jaguar

Song: "Desert Rose"

Frustrated with regularly selling mere millions of albums, former Police frontman Sting granted British luxury carmakers Jaguar the rights to not only his track "Desert Rose" but also himself. Team Sting shot the video for the single with the intent of pitching it to Jaguar as a commercial. It worked, and Sting gave his song and his likeness to Jaguar for free, figuring it to be worth the asking price in free advertising. Ultimately, Brand New Day became Sting's best selling solo record to date.

Mu = 32.48 (plus an additional one million sell-out points for living in a castle"¦literally)

Band of Horses for Ford Edge

Song: "Funeral"
Northwestern indie-rock group Band of Horses appears in this commercial despite the obviously questionable choice of having a song titled "Funeral" to promote your recall-prone Ford brand. The alternative label Sub-Pop, once famous for anti-commercialism, has seen a handful of their roster promoting such products as M&Ms, McDonalds and Walmart recently. Movin' on up!

Mu = 145.61

Mangesh, Jason and Matthew for Enron

Say an editor or two from mental_floss joined an upstart writer like me (I'd play bass) and formed a dance-punk band, promptly selling our first song to Enron. We'd be so indie that nobody would have ever heard of us. Plus, we could quit these boring day jobs and focus on what really matters "“ the music, man.Mu = 170.44

Plug in your own bands and post your Moby Quotients!

Matthew Smith is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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