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6 Albums Inspired By Outer Space

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Last month, China conducted its first space walk. This week, India launched its first spaceship to the moon. Space seems to be the place for nations to advance science and nationalism, but it's a place for music too.

Outer space muses struck terrestrial musicians long before any rockets left the earth. In addition to creating intergalactic song lyrics and spacey sound effects, a few artists pay tribute to space travelers and share their own extraterrestrial adventures through music. They may not all make it to stardom on this planet, but they share songs, instruments and tales of space with listeners.

Space Travel Tributes

Vostok 6 by Kurt Swinghammer
Singer-songwriter Kurt Swinghammer was only six years old when Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in outer space, but the voyage would later inspire him to create an album about her. He released a tribute album in 1999 and named it after her 1963 space mission. Vostok 6 traces Valentina Tereshkova's journey and includes a love song about her courtship with fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev. Swinghammer used dozens of instruments and effects, including guitars, an electric sitar and a mini-moog. Ballet dancer Peggy Baker choreographed a solo performance called Rocket Girl to music from the album.

Sounds of the Satellites by Laika

Laika1.jpg In 1957, Russian scientists trained Laika, a stray dog from Moscow, to become the first living creature to reach space on Sputnik 2. Hers was a one-way trip to space. Russia's progress and Laika's fate fueled propaganda on both sides of the Cold War.

In 1993, an American band named after the pooch (whose name means "barker" in Russian) released the album "Sounds of the Satellites."

Band members chose the name because, "it made a good band name firstly because we liked the sound of the word and we liked the association with being 'out there' in terms of experimentation while at the same time being a warm furry organic thing."

With members formerly of the Moonshake, the band created albums evoking space.

Laika has inspired other musical tributes as well, such as Finland's Laika and the Cosmonauts. Also, Arcade Fire references the dog in the song "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)."

Meta Space Tribute

"Bowie in Space" by Flight of the Conchords

David Bowie may not have actually been to space, but to the New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords, he may as well have. They sang a tribute to Bowie's many albums full space travels.

Bowie sang the story of Major Tom in space for his 1969 album. In addition to journeying to space, the album also bridged Bowie's singer-songwriter material to glam rock. In 1972, Bowie returned to space and traveled much farther for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Space Adventures

Into Outerspace with Lucia Pamela in the Year 2000
LuciaPamela.jpg Pamela was once featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not for memorizing 10,000 songs, but this is her only album released.

The 1969 album tells the story of her space adventures with lunar roosters, Eskimos and an outerspace wedding. She ran into some nuts on the moon too, specifically Mon'seur Walnut and his cashew and pistachio friends.

Neil Armstrong took a few steps on the moon's surface in 1969. Meanwhile, Pamela recorded an album up there. She said the acoustics were poor up there, but nobody had to pay taxes. She also issued a coloring book to go along with the album.

Her time and space travel adventures may have inspired Conan O'Brien's "In the Year 2000" sketches.

In honor of Lucia Pamela's coloring book contest, British band Stereolab wrote the song "International Colouring Contest" for their own space-travel album Mars Audiac Quintet.

I Hear a New World: An Outer Space Musical Fantasy by Joe Meek
JoeMeek.jpg In the 1950s and early '60s, the talented British record producer Joe Meek was in high demand at music studios. Wanting to be more experimental, he broke away from the labels to create his own sound. He collaborated with a number of innovative artists as an independent producer. (He is rumored to have worked with fellow space aficionado David Bowie).

In 1960, he recorded I Hear a New World with the "Blue Men," a Hawaiian guitar, and a host of synthesizers and other instruments. He called it an attempt to "create a picture in music of what could be up there in space."

This may or may not have been the first concept album ever recorded, but he was definitely ahead in the space race. However, with only 99 copies of the album produced, few people would have heard it.

In addition to outer space, he took an interest in the occult. Seven years after his album release, he shot his landlady and then himself. A documentary about his life began showing in film festivals this year.

Extraterrestrial Artist

Space is the Place by Sun Ra
SunRa.jpg While Lucia Pamela and Joe Meeks visited outer space, Sun Ra came from there. Experimental musician Sun Ra took on the name of the Egyptian Sun god and named his record label El Saturn. He was born in 1914 in the segregated south of Birmingham, Alabama, but he said he came from Saturn.

Known for elaborate costumes, unique instruments and parades during shows, Sun Ra and his Arkestra performed live for decades.

Sun Ra released dozens of cosmic travel albums. In 1974, he and the Arkestra also released a movie version of Space is the Place in which Sun Ra explored race issues on earth and the transcendent power of music. In the movie, as the Ambassador from the Intergalactic Regions of the Council for Outer Space, Sun Ra advocated for empowerment through peace and self-determination for blacks.

"I paint pictures of infinity with my music and that's why a lot of people can't understand it," he once said. Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to tour. For more on Sun Ra, check out John Szwed's biography of his life and music.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]