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The Quick 10: It Was 42 Years Ago Today...

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Today is a really important day in music history "“ for the world at large and for me personally. It's the 42nd anniversary of the day the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It's important for me because this is the album that introduced me to the Beatles and I'm still madly in love with them to this day. I wasn't around for the original release, but I have very fond memories of hanging out in my friend Angie's basement in the '90s listening to the LPs on her dad's old console record player. In celebration of Sgt. Pepper, I thought we'd have a little trivia about the album and the music.

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1. The famous cover collage is known as "People We Like." Each Beatle, except Ringo (who apparently didn't really care) submitted a list of people they wanted to appear on the cover. John Lennon asked for Jesus and Hitler but was refused. Mae West almost didn't allow her image to be used, asking, "What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?" But when the Beatles personally wrote her a letter asking for permission, she relented.

2. You probably recognize most of the people on the cover, if you look closely enough. But one of them you won't recognize unless you're a Beatles buff is the first man in the third row of people to the far left. That's Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles' original bassist, who died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962 (he had already quit the Beatles when he died). In case there are others you can't quite put your finger on, check out this interactive map of the cover. Just mouse over a person to see who they are.

3. There's a tale going around that the album was originally supposed to be called Dr. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles quickly found out that Dr Pepper was an American soda company and switched the prefix to "Sgt." instead. But I can't find any interview that actually corroborates that fact, but it's entertaining nonetheless "“ especially when you consider that John Lennon later came to adore Dr Pepper and had it shipped to him so he could get his fix when he wasn't in the States. The story I've heard is that Paul McCartney was sitting with Mal Evans, one of the Beatles' roadies, on a plane, and Mal asked what the "S" and the "P" on the little pots at their dinner plates stood for. Paul told him they were Salt and Pepper and the idea sort of grew from there. That's the story from The Beatles Anthology, so I'm willing to bet that there's more truth to that than the Dr Pepper story.

lyrics4. This was the album that started all of those pesky "Paul is Dead" rumors. Among the "clues" on this album alone "“ the fact that Paul is standing with his back to the camera in one of the pictures when everyone else is facing it; the "Billy Shears" reference at the end of the "Sgt. Pepper" song (supposedly Paul was replaced by a look-alike named Billy Shears Campbell); and the fact that the Shirley Temple doll wearing the Rolling Stones sweater has a driving glove on its left hand. You see, Paul supposedly died in a car accident, and he is lefthanded, so clearly that's what the Beatles intended with the driving glove. You can see an extremely extensive list at Officially Pronounced Dead? The Great Beatle Death Conspiracy. It's kind of nuts. And here's a photo gallery comparing Paul to "Billy Shears," which is almost laughable.

5. Automatic Double Tracking, or ADT, was invented for the Beatles specifically for this album. It was fairly standard practice for singers to record their vocals twice and then lay them on top of one another for a stronger sound, but most musicians really hated doing it "“ especially John Lennon. After much complaining by John, the ADT was invented by EMI engineer Ken Townsend. It used tape recorders to instantaneously double vocals without having to record them twice.

cutout6. The Beatles originally wanted people who bought the album to get a whole incredible package that would have included pencils, pins and other little trinkets, but it ended up being way too much money. Instead, they included an insert with pieces that the buyers could cut out and have fun with. The cutouts included a mustache, badges and a mini stand-up of the whole band.
7. The New York Times hated Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and said it sounded like a spoiled, over-attended child, meaning that between the horns and the orchestra and the grand pianos and the sound effects, there was just too much going on.

8. The album's second track, "With a Little Help from My Friends," contains the lyric "What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?" But that wasn't originally the line. The line used to be, "Would you throw ripe tomatoes at me?" Then, after remembering that George Harrison had once mentioned that he liked jelly babies (a British gummy candy) and fans showered them with the candy at every concert afterward, Ringo decided "ripe tomatoes" maybe wasn't the best idea. Which is for the best "“ "Would you stand up and walk out on me?" flows much better, don't you think?

yellow9. Sgt. Pepper was nominated for a whopping seven Grammy Awards and won four of them "“ Album of the Year, Best Album Cover, Best Engineered Recording and Best Contemporary Album.
10. Despite popular belief, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is not about drugs and was never intended to be about drugs. Even after admitting to other drug references, John Lennon maintained that the song was named after a drawing done by his son Julian. Snopes even has a picture of the original drawing.

My tastes have changed over the years. When I first discovered Sgt. Pepper, I probably would have told you that "Lucy" was hands-down my favorite. And there was a time in my teens when I thought "She's Leaving Home" soooo described how underappreciated I was at home (teen angst, what can I say?). But these days I'd have to tell you that the haunted quality of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" or the pure innovation of "A Day in the Life" would make them my favorites. How about you? Favorite Sgt. Pepper song? Or do you think the whole thing is overrated? Share in the comments!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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