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The Quick 10: 10 Facts About Freddie Mercury

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Stacy is off today—she's covering Lollapalooza in Chicago and will be back on Tuesday with all sorts of good material and crazy stories. In her absence, here's a Quick 10 that originally ran last November. And to keep up with Stacy's adventures this weekend, you can follow her on Twitter.

It was on this day (November 24) in 1991 that Freddie Mercury passed away. I'm a fan, so I thought I'd pay a little tribute to him in our Q10 today. I was born a little too late, but I would have loved to see Queen in concert. They sound like they were amazing. If any of you have first-hand concert experience, let me live vicariously through you - share it in the comments!

crest1. He designed the Queen emblem (AKA the Queen Crest) himself, thanks to a degree in art and graphic design from Ealing Art College. The crest is made of the zodiac signs of the whole band "“ two Leo lions for John Deacon and Roger Taylor, a Cancer crab for Brian May and two fairies to represent Freddie's Virgo sign. The "Q" and the crown represent the band name, of course, and a phoenix protects the whole thing.

2. His birth name was Farrokh Bulsara; he started going by Freddie when he was at St. Peter's, a boarding school for boys near Mumbai. He legally changed his name to Freddie Mercury around 1970, when Queen was formed.

3. He and family (parents and one sister, Kashmira) were Parsis and practiced Zoroastrian religion. Even though he hadn't practiced in years, his funeral was performed by a Zoroastrian priest.

4. Freddie was born in Zanzibar "“ his family moved there so his dad could continue his career at the British Colonial Office.

5. Freddie had a recorded range of three (almost four) octaves. Mariah Carey claims five, for some perspective. When he spoke he was more of a baritone, but majority of his singing fell in the tenor range.

6. He had a long-term girlfriend in the early 70s named Mary Austin. Even after they broke up, they remained incredibly close. He gave an interview in 1985 and said that she was his only friend and he didn't want any other friends. He wrote "Love of My Life" about her and was the godfather of her first son. When he died, he left her most of his money, his house, and his recording royalties.

7. Although he was obviously very flamboyant on stage, most people who knew him intimately said he was very shy in his personal life "“ one of the reasons he very rarely granted interviews.

8. Freddie and his manager issued a statement confirming that he had AIDS the very day before he died. It had been widely speculated for a couple of years due to his gaunt appearance and Queen's sudden lack of touring. Some people were very upset by this delayed statement, saying that an earlier announcement could have raised a vast amount of money for the cause.

9. He loved cats and had as many as 10 at one point. He even had an album and a song dedicated to his cats (Mr. Bad Guy). He wrote a song about his favorite cat, Delilah. Here's a bit of it:

Delilah, Delilah, oh my, oh my, oh my - you're irresistible
You make me smile when I'm just about to cry
You bring me hope, you make me laugh - you like it
You get away with murder, so innocent
But when you throw a moody you're all claws and you bite -
That's alright !
Delilah, Delilah, oh my, oh my, oh my - you're unpredictable
You make me so very happy
When you cuddle up and go to sleep beside me
And then you make me slightly mad
When you pee all over my Chippendale Suite

mic10. The "bottomless mic" was among Freddie's many trademarks. Here's how that happened: early in Queen's career, he was apparently mid-show when his mic stand snapped in half. Instead of having it replaced, Freddie just used it as-is. He must have liked it, because he used the mic "stick" from then on.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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