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6 Songs Used to Torture & Intimidate

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Playing an annoying song over and over to get someone to spill their guts might sound like a gag from a Mel Brooks movie, but it's actually become a standard practice. An article by an NYU musicologist in the Journal of the Society for American Music details how music was regularly used in interrogations on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan as a method of inducing disorientation to get suspects to talk without inflicting physical force. Here are some of the songs used by military and law enforcement entities to get their suspects to sing.

1. Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA"

It should stand as no surprise that a large majority of the songs used in Guantanamo Bay consisted of seemingly patriotic ditties like Springsteen's most famous American anthem. One Spanish citizen accused of being linked to the terrorist network Al-Qaida claimed his interrogators played this song the majority of the time during his entire two year stay in the Cuban prison. However, Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of the UK human rights charity Reprieve, noted that it may not have been the most patriotic choice since "the message of the song is harshly critical of American policy, condemning the war in Vietnam and describing a veteran's efforts to find work."

2. Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty"

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Mohammed al Qahtani, the man many believe was the "20th hijacker" of the Sept. 11 attacks, got one of two wake-up calls during his stay in Guantanamo Bay: dripping water on his head or an earful of Aguilera's sexually charged lyrics. This was combined with other interrogation techniques, such as prolonged strip searches and invasion of space by a female. He would admit he met with bin Laden, but later deny this admission. Days later, many of these interrogation methods were halted after military lawyers raised questions about their efficacy.

3. Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made for Walking"

bootsOne of history's most tragic standoffs also featured one of history's most famous musical standoffs. Cult leader David Koresh's battle with the FBI in 1993 featured a back and forth barrage of ballad bombardments. Koresh wore down his followers by blasting his own failed pop songs at eardrum-busting levels. When the FBI moved in and cut the power to the compound, they fired back with Nancy Sinatra's depressing girl power pop ballad along with a monotonous mix of Tibetan chants, cavalry bugle beats and 1950s-style Christmas carols for nearly seven weeks straight. FBI officials said they rejected the idea of using Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart" because of fears that some of the cult members might actually like it.

4. AC/DC's "Shoot to Thrill" and "Hells Bells"

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Heavy metal songs have long been a favorite tool of military interrogators. They're loud, often repetitive and (as any parent with steadily reduced hearing can attest) can even create feelings of physical pain or discomfort to the ears and head. Troops used "long range acoustic devices" to blast the Australian metal group's ballads throughout the region to increase the vulnerability of Iraqi insurgents. The LRADs, developed by the American Technology Corporation, have also been used to repel pirate attacks in Somalia and throw sound at bystanders at stores and conventions for product displays.

5. Anything by Barry Manilow

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The work of the world's most famous lounge lizard might be Jack Bauer's first choice of music in an interrogation room. Actually, the military didn't use Manilow's music to get their suspects to sing. The New Zealand town of Christchurch recently blasted the crooner's tunes throughout their central mall district to drive away the local punks who had been littering the area with graffiti, drinking in public and doing drugs. It sounds like a perfect plan because after all, he may write the songs that make the whole world sing, but they also make young kids' heads explode.

6. Barney the Dinosaur's "I Love You"

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The Guardian newspaper in London called this sugary lump of fear inducing madness the most "overused" song in the U.S. interrogator's arsenal. Interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, however, used the sappy kids' show theme song as "futility music" to convince detainees of the futility of maintaining their silence. One United Kingdom human rights group protested President George W. Bush's visit to England by blasting the song in his general direction. Now that's a second strike.

Danny Gallagher is a freelance writer, humorist, reporter and piano man living in Texas. He can be found on the web at dannygallagher.net, on MySpace at myspace.com/dannygahatesmyspace and on Twitter at twitter.com/thisisdannyg.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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