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The Secret Life of the Banjo

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By Robbie Whelan

When you hear the banjo, you probably picture one of two things—Kermit the Frog strumming away or the inbred boy from Deliverance. How can one instrument conjure up images both so sweet and so repugnant? The answer lies in the history of the banjo, which stretches from Africa to Hollywood, with an extended pit stop in Appalachia.

Centuries ago, somewhere in West Africa, the banjo was born on the knees of griots—storytellers who improvised their lyrics as they performed. Almost like forerunners to today's hip-hop artists, griots interacted with their audiences using call-and-response patterns to liven up the crowd. Their instruments—strings and animal skins tacked across hollowed-out gourds—are considered the first banjos.

The earliest versions were easy to make and easily portable, so when Africans were forced aboard slave ships, they brought their banjos with them. Once in America, slaves had no trouble recreating the instruments wherever they went. The banjo spread across Appalachia, but it was quickly pigeonholed as a black instrument.

The Jim Crow Show

Big changes were in store for the banjo, though. In the mid-19th century, the newest and most popular form of entertainment was the minstrel show. White men and women toured the nation dressed in blackface while singing and dancing in a manner that mocked black people. And because they were lampooning all aspects of African-American culture—particularly African dance and music—the banjo was at center stage.

Minstrel shows also meant change for the instrument itself. The early "minstrel banjo" was a fretless, four-string instrument with strings crafted from animal intestines. But metal strings soon replaced those, and then a minstrel named Joel Walker Sweeney (aka The Banjo King) popularized the fifth string, which became the defining characteristic of the modern instrument.

During the next 50 years or so, a strange thing happened to the banjo. Although minstrel shows poked fun at black people, they made the banjo immensely popular among white people in the process. In turn, African Americans increasingly wanted to distance themselves from an instrument that had come to represent oppression and bigotry. In the early 1900s, the banjo only played a small part in new forms of African-American music, such as blues, gospel, and jazz. Meanwhile, it was becoming all the rage in white communities, especially in Appalachia.

Hillbilly Hilarity

The 1930s saw the rise of the banjo in Appalachian country music, thanks to the Grand Ole Opry. A Saturday-night variety show performed in Nashville and broadcast live on the radio, the Opry spread "hillbilly" culture over the airwaves. The banjo played a central role in this, accompanying the antics of comedians such as David "Stringbean" Akeman and Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, both of whom became even more famous later on the TV hit Hee-Haw.

The banjo might have remained an instrument of redneck comedy forever if it hadn't been for one man—Earl Scruggs. Born in 1924 in rural North Carolina, Scruggs grew up listening to the Opry and became convinced that the instrument could do more than accompany stage acts. By inventing the jangly, three-finger technique of banjo-picking—the trademark of today's bluegrass music—Scruggs used his fast-paced, twangy style to prove beyond a doubt that banjo players could be virtuoso musicians. Of course, the trend has lived on. Modern-day banjo masters like Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Bill Keith all play with as much technical precision as concert violinists.

Ironically, Scruggs also recorded the soundtracks for Bonnie and Clyde (ever wonder why high-speed getaway music is always played on a banjo?) and TV's The Beverly Hillbillies. Both projects probably maligned the banjo's image as much as Scruggs's earlier work had innovated it, though not everyone in the music industry agrees. In fact, Juilliard-trained banjo legend Eric Weissberg thinks the soundtracks brought bluegrass into the lives of many people who would have otherwise never heard it.

banjo-bluegrass.jpgUntil the 1960s, bluegrass wasn't really played outside of Appalachia. And because it was considered regional music, record companies didn't distribute it nationally. But in 1963, Weissberg recorded an album with his friend Marshall Brickman called New Dimensions in Banjo & Bluegrass. The record didn't generate much attention at first, but five years later, the hills came alive with the sound of banjos when film director John Borman wanted the song "Dueling Banjos" for his new movie, Deliverance. Weissburg happily recorded a new version with musician Steve Mandell, and it turns out, the song shouldn't have been called "Dueling Banjos" at all. It's actually a duet between a banjo and a guitar, but listeners didn't seem to care. The new cut was played as the background music in the movie's radio ad, and all of the sudden, all over the country, disc jockeys were answering phone calls from people who wanted to know where they could get their hands on the song. In lieu of a soundtrack album, Warner Brothers added two Deliverance songs to the material from New Dimensions and released it in 1973 as Dueling Banjos. Weissberg, Brickman, and Mandell became rich overnight, and Deliverance's depiction of rural Appalachian life—with that foreboding, nine-note banjo melody—was burned forever into the American psyche.

We'll end with a clip of Kermit performing "The Rainbow Connection":

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”