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Between The Liner Notes: 6 Things You Can Learn By Obsessing Over Album Artwork

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There's something exciting about unwrapping a new CD. The sense of anticipation, the smell of the packaging, the struggle with the sticky, impossible-to-open white anti-theft strip. But as music becomes increasingly electronic (in the downloadable sense of the word), gone the way of the liner notes. Sure, you can still pull up the cover art and a track listing, but booklets filled with lyrics and stories and artwork with hidden meanings have become more and more rare, leaving music junkies with just a little less to talk and discuss and argue over. Don't know what I'm talking about? Here's a quick look into a few hidden gems plucked from the liner notes:

1. Radiohead Did NOT Create a Concept Album (Or Did They?)

1997's OK Computer by Radiohead still holds up as one of their most brilliant works. While the members of the group insist OK Computer is not a 'concept album', there are recurring themes of consumerism and human apathy among the lyrics and highlighted by the album art. The liner notes also hold a variety of hidden gems left open for interpretation. The lyrics themselves have erratic spacing, leaving some to suggest that they represent images. For instance, the gaps in the lyrics for "Lucky" reveal a man getting out of a lake or a superhero, two lines found in the song itself. Also hidden in the liner notes? The band thanks Michael, Bill, Peter and Mike...the members of R.E.M.

2. John Coltrane Sings Poetry

In the liner notes of arguably Coltrane's best album, A Love Supreme, there is a devotional poem written by the artist representing a conversation between Coltrane and God. The album is broken down into four movements, with part four being called "Psalm". In this movement, Coltrane performs what he calls "musical narration," playing the words of his poem without actually singing any lyrics. The poem ends with the cry "Thank you God. ELATION "“ ELEGANCE "“ EXALTATION "“ All from God. Thank you God. Amen."

3. Pearl Jam Wants You To Read One Book

While recording Yield, Pearl Jam was heavily influenced by a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The title itself comes from one of the primary concepts of the book: yielding to nature. Inside the liner notes you will find a yield sign hidden in every picture. This album actually received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Recording Packaging, which I had no idea existed (although they were beaten out by Madonna's Ray of Light).

4. R.E.M. Included the Puddles of their Brainstorming

As you may know, R.E.M. pulled it's band name at random from the dictionary (at one point the band serious considering calling themselves Cans of Piss). Seeming to enjoy this method of selective christening, band members typically tape up a huge sheet of paper up on the studio wall and write any name that comes to their head as a method of brainstorming album names. The liner notes of Monster include some of the alternate titles they were considering. Also written in the notes are two words: For River. River Phoenix, a good friend of frontman Michael Stipe, died the year that R.E.M. was recording Monster.

5. Weezer Just Says "No"

After the huge commercial flop that was Weezer's Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo shut down Weezer for three years. However, following this hiatus, the band reunited to put out a second self-titled effort (while recording this album, Weezer toured under the pseudonym Goat Punishment). Nicknamed "The Green Album" (to differentiate it from the Blue Album and, later, the Red Album), the liner notes contain an Italian phrase from a Verdi opera: "Torniamo all'antico e sarà un progresso." The definition? Let us return to old times and that will be progress. Additionally, if you pry open the CD tray from this album, written on the edge is the word "No". Online groups have suggested this is an answer to another hidden gem from Radiohead's OK Computer. Written in the liner notes: I like you. I like you. You are a wonderful person. I'm full of enthusiasm. I'm going places. I'll be happy to help you. I am an important person, would you like to come home with me? Weezer apparently declined the invitation.

sublime_cover

6. Sublime Wants You To Learn the Language 

Sublime's third and final release (the album actually came out after Brad Nowell's death by heroin overdose), contains a song called "Caress Me Down". In this single, Nowell alternates between english and spanish while singing. While the other songs on the album have lyrics that appear in the liner notes, under "Caress Me Down" it has the first few lines followed simply by "Learn Spanish". Also found inside this CD's liner notes are pictures of Brad singing to his new born son and Lou Dog, Nowell's Dalmatian named for his grandfather Louie.

Of course, this is just a brief sample of the hidden wonders of liner notes. I deliberately left off some of the most famous examples (e.g. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heartsclub Band) but if you'd like to read more on that album, try this article. Does anyone else miss the joys and wonders of reading and speculating over liner notes? Got any favorite examples? Drop them in the comments when you get a sec. 

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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