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Important Questions: Is There Really An E Street? (A Springsteen Primer)

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I love Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band in much the same way that a dog loves its master: unconditionally and with the kind of enthusiasm that makes gratuitous slobbering forgivable. The Boss is the patron saint of the Soniak family, one of the few things I have in common with my father that's not a genetic oddity (ask me about my crooked fingers sometime). I recently got tickets for the summer leg of the Magic Tour, and redemption after a disastrous attempt at seeing them last October (some punk from Jersey, of all places, sold me a fake ticket on ebay and PayPal refused to help me). To celebrate, here's a ton of Springsteen fanboy nerdery crammed into an FAQ for you.

1. When Bruce says that "they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night" in the song "Atlantic City," what the hell is he talking about?

The Chicken Man was Phil Testa, the underboss of the Philadelphia crime family under Angelo Bruno. Bruno was killed in 1980, and Testa, who got his nickname from his involvement in a poultry business, succeeded him as don of the family. His nine-month reign ended when conspirators in the family placed a nail bomb under his porch and detonated it when he walked out the front door.

2. Is There Really an E Street? Where?

E Street runs north east through the New Jersey shore town of Belmar. According to Springsteen lore, the band took its name from the street because original keyboard player David Sancious' mother lived there and allowed the band to rehearse in her house. The titular avenue of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" is also in Belmar.

3. "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out"? I'm glad you brought that up. What's that song about?

"Tenth Avenue" tells the story of how the band was formed. The "Bad Scooter" that's searching for his groove is a young Springsteen in search of a new backing band. The "Big Man" in the third verse is saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Springsteen met him while playing in a club in Asbury Park. It was a stormy night with strong winds and when Clemons opened the door to the club, it flew off its hinges. Clemons has become a larger than life figure in the band, their personal Paul Bunyan, and Springsteen likes to use the story as proof that Clemons can blow the doors off any room he's in. The horn intro was proposed and arranged by guitarist Steven Van Zandt, and at several concerts it's been performed by the Miami Horns, a horn section that includes La Bamba and Pender from Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

4. It seems like the E Street Band has been around forever, but what did these guys do before the band formed, and during the decade between the break up and the reunion?

In the late 60s and early 70s, the Jersey Shore had a lively music scene, especially in Asbury Park, and almost all the E Street musicians got their start in various shore bands like Little Melvin & The Invaders, The Downtown Tangiers Band, The Jaywalkers, Steel Mill and Dr. Zoom & The Sonic Booms. Springsteen himself cut his teeth in The Castiles, Steel Mill and even played with Chuck Berry, who toured without a band in the early 70s to save money. He would pick up local musicians at each tour stop to do a show or two, and Springsteen performed with him when he came to New Jersey.

During lulls in E Street activity, and during the ten years between the band's dissolution and 1999 reunion, all the musicians kept themselves busy. Drummer max-7.jpgMax Weinberg, of course, leads the Max Weinberg Seven, the house band on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He was also a session drummer on Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell (E Street pianist Roy Bittan also played on the album) and played on "Bat Out of Hell," "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth" and "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," which gives him the honor of keeping the beat on two of the best selling rock albums of all time. He's also performed at the 1993 and 1997 Presidential Inauguration Galas, the 1995 Grammy Awards, the dedication of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and on albums by Sting, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Ringo Starr and Barbra Streisand.

Steven Van Zandt took the role of Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, released some solo albums, hosts the syndicated garage rock radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage and, in 2006, assembled and directed an all-star band to back Hank Williams, Jr. on recording of "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" for the season premiere of Monday Night Football that included Little Richard, Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, Aerosmith's Joe Perry, The Roots' ?uestlove and Bootsy Collins. Van Zandt was also the director of the music selection committee that picked the songs for the video game Rock Band.

Clarence Clemons also made a brief foray into acting and appeared as one of the "Three Most Important People In The World" in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and made a guest appearance on Diff'rent Strokes as a saxophonist who helps Arnold Jackson learn to play. He most recently appeared twice on The Wire as a Baltimore youth-program organizer. During the 80s, he also owned a Big Man's West, a nightclub in Red Bank, New Jersey.

5. Why do they call Springsteen "The Boss?"

We call him The Boss because we work for him. See you in 86 days, Bruce.

Matt Soniak is an intern for mental_floss. He also has his own blog, Bat Country, where he covers scientific oddities.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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