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The Quick 10: 10 Moments in Music Censorship History

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Super interesting topic today "“ I was quite intrigued by the research (with lots of YouTube clips). I know there are some moments in music censorship history that didn't make the list, so if you know of one, leave it in the comments. I mean, you can try. I might delete your comment if I don't agree with you.

dylan1. Bob Dylan on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1963. Dylan was on the show to promote his then-new album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and told producers he wanted to sing "Talkin' John Birch Society Blues" for his musical number. He even did a runthrough for the producers, who apparently had no problem with it. But just a couple of hours before the show was supposed to air, he was told the song was a no-go. So Dylan walked out and never came back. However, Ed Sullivan later said he had nothing to do with the decision, unlike our next example. Apparently it was a network decision. The John Birch Society was an anti-government group the network had reported on via its news outlets. The official word is that they didn't want to cross wires and make political statements about events their journalists were reporting on.

2. The Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1967. They sang "Let's Spend the Night Together," quite a scandalous song at the time. Some radio stations pulled it altogether; others opted to bleep the word "night." Can you imagine? I wonder what words that we censor today will be perfectly acceptable on the oldies station in 40 years. Anyway, Sullivan asked the Stones to sing "Let's Spend Some Time Together" instead (as if the lyric "I'll satisfy your every need" was somehow not sexual?). The Stones agreed, and everyone was happy. However, Mick was anxious to prove to the fans that he hadn't just bowed to the will of Ed Sullivan and insisted that he didn't sing "Let's spend some time together," but "Let's spend some mmmm together." Because somehow that makes Mick more of a rebel. However, this video shows Mick saying "Time" at least once, and the backup singing clearly emphasizing "Time" loudly on all of the other occasions.

3. The Doors, Ed Sullivan, 1967. In our final Ed Sullivan example, the Doors made an appearance on the show and were asked to change the lyric of "Light My Fire" that said "Girl, we couldn't get much higher." The Doors said, "Sure, no problem"... and proceeded to go ahead and sing the song, unaltered.

Anyone who has watched the Oliver Stone movie knows that. However, in the movie, Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison looks directly into the camera and delivers the line as a huge insult to Sullivan. In the real clip from the show, Jim Morrison is just singing with his eyes closed (which I understand was pretty typical).

4. The Sex Pistols, Thames Television's "Today" with Bill Grundy. There was some under-the-breath cursing early on in the interview, but it got worse. But to be honest, Grundy sort of had it coming - he rather raunchily suggested to Siouxsie Sioux on air that they meet up after the show. Steve Jones called him a dirty... well, check out the YouTube video if you want, but, you know... there's some language. They are The Sex Pistols. They were immediately dropped from EMI, their label, and Grundy was suspended from his job for two weeks. The show was canceled two months later.

5. Nirvana, MTV Video Music Awards, 1992 and In Utero album back cover, 1993. When Nirvana's In Utero album was released in 1993, their song "Rape Me" was changed to "Waif Me" on the back cover of the CD when big-box stores Wal-Mart and K-Mart refused to sell it otherwise. Kurt Cobain said, "I just feel bad for all the kids who are forced to buy their music from big chain stores and have to have the edited music," but it wasn't the first time he had run across censorship issues with the song. Nirvana intended to premiere the song at the MTV VMA's in 1992, but the network said no way. The band agreed to play Lithium instead (even though MTV really wanted them to play "Smells LIke Teen Spirit"), but when Nirvana took the stage, they played the first five seconds of "Rape Me," presumably just to make the execs backstage freak out. But then they played "Lithium" as agreed and all was well.

6. Madonna, Pepsi, 1989. Madonna was supposed to have a campaign out for Pepsi in the Spring of 1989... just when released her controversial "Like a Prayer" video. The ad would have shown her drinking a Pepsi, watching a home video of herself as an eight-year-old girl at her birthday party. But "Like a Prayer" came out just a day after the Pepsi campaign launched, so after a single airing of the commercial (during The Cosby Show Pepsi yanked the commercials. Madonna totally made out on this one, though: she kept her $5 million endorsement deal and won the MTV Viewer's Choice Award for the video. She thanked Pepsi for making such a big deal out of her video and giving her so much free publicity.

7. Pearl Jam, AT&T, 2007. When Pearl Jam's Lollapalooza concert was cybercast by AT&T, Eddie Vedder and co. did a cover of the Pink Floyd song "Another Brick in the Wall," but changed some of the words to, "George Bush, leave this world alone," and "George Bush, find yourself another home." AT&T "accidentally" omitted those lyrics from the Webcast. In a statement, AT&T blamed the mistake on their Webcast vendor and said that there was no reason for the lyrics to be censored.

8. Cher, MTV, 1989. Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" video caused quite the stir, largely because of her outfit... or lack thereof. Supposedly it's a fishnet body stocking and a very revealing swimsuit, but to me, it's always looked like some pantyhose and some strategically-placed electrical tape. Also, she's straddling a cannon through part of the video. MTV would only show it after 9 p.m., and some different shots were used to make the video less sexually-charged. Scandalous at the time, but today, I kind of just look at the video and go, "Oh, Cher."

9. Neil Young, MTV, 1989. Neil's song "This Note's for You" mocked the bands and companies who used their music to promote consumerism. The song specifically says,

"Ain't singin' for Pepsi
Ain't singin' for Coke
I don't sing for nobody
Makes me look like a joke
This note's for you.

Ain't singin' for Miller
Don't sing for Bud
I won't sing for politicians
Ain't singin' for Spuds
This note's for you."

The video spoofs the famous Michael Jackson incident where his hair caught fire while filming a Pepsi ad. MTV refused to play the video, at first saying it was worried about trademark infringements from Michael Jackson and other celebrities portrayed in the video. So Neil Young's record company said they would sign an agreement releasing MTV from any responsibility from any future lawsuits. They also said they could scrap the funny video and just feature Neil singing. MTV refused, this time saying that they don't allow any artists to name specific products in their songs. This argument was pretty weak, though, based on the fact that "Parents Just Don't Understand" was in high rotation at the time, and it was uncensored despite name drops of McDonalds, Adidas and Porsche, among others.
Neil wrote an open letter to MTV and called them spineless, and MTV finally gave in and played the video. The joke was on MTV: fans voted the video as the Best Video of the Year in the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards.

10. Pete Seeger, CBS, 1967. Controversial folk singer Pete Seeger was scheduled to be on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour singing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," a song about Vietnam. When CBS saw the taped performance, they immediately cut it from the program before it could air as they didn't want to make it seem like they were criticizing the President. There was much protest from fans, Seeger and the Smothers Brothers' staff, and Pete was allowed back on in February, 1968, to perform the song.

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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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May 23, 2017
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