Original image

On Music: Brahms' Violin Concerto

Original image

Blood 1.jpgI finally got around to seeing There Will Be Blood, by the unfairly talented, Paul Thomas Anderson. I'll admit it: I really did love it as much as everyone said I would. But unlike most of the rave reviews I'd heard from friends, it wasn't Daniel Day-Lewis I loved the most (though to be sure, he was pretty amazing), it was the movie's score.

brahms2.gifJonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) came up with some pretty wonderfully percussive textures, and I thought the use of Arvo Pärt's music was perfect, as well (I know, I know "“ I keep promising a post about Pärt's genius, and I will"¦ just not now). But the absolute most brilliant use of music, as far as I'm concerned, was the inclusion of the Allegro giocoso from Brahms' Violin Concerto. If you don't remember the film, Anderson uses this joyous music to help say: "We've struck it rich boys!" underscoring some of the scenes after they finally tap into big oil and business starts booming. (It's also used to underscore the closing credits, cued perfectly off Day-Lewis's last line in the film: "I'm finished!")

If you're new to the Brahms masterpiece, here are a few things worth knowing to help you get your feet wet. I'll also include my recommendations for a good recording at the end, if you're interested in downloading one from iTunes, etc.

Joachim.jpg1. The concerto was written in 1878 for Brahms' pal, one of the greatest violin virtuosos of the era, Joseph Joachim, who premiered it in 1879 under the baton of Brahms. (To give you and idea of how sought after this violinist was, Schumann and Dvorak also wrote violin concertos with Joachim in mind, though he never touched theirs.)

2. Though it's now considered perhaps the greatest violin concerto ever written (and one of the most challenging), people didn't really get it at first. And not just the common folk. Here's what the Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate had to say when he was asked why he wouldn't play the work: "Do you think that I would stand there with my violin in my hand and listen while the oboe plays the only melody in the entire piece?" Harsh! And so not true"¦, though if you're already familiar with the piece, you have to admit the oboe solo in the adagio is pretty sweet.

3. If you think the opening melody in the final movement (the Allegro giocoso used in There Will Be Blood) sounds a little Hungarian-flavored, it is. Ten years prior to publishing the Violin Concerto, Brahms penned his most famous and most profitable piece, Hungarian Dances. He clearly had a thing for gypsy music. You might not think you're familiar with this well-known piece, but I bet you are. Hit the play button and have a listen.

4. If you don't yet own a recording of Brahms' Violin Concerto, let me recommend Isaac Stern's with Euegene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Or one of the many made by Gidon Kremer. He's always pretty solid. Check him out in this YouTube clip playing the Allegro under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

Check out past On Music posts here >>

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]