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The Quick Eight: Eight Author-Musicians

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Sometimes, people are just so creative and full of thoughts that a single outlet for creativity is simply not enough. This does not apply to me. The only instrument I can wail on is the kind that limits you to five plastic buttons for your "notes." These eight authors, however, like to put down their pens and pick up an axe when they're feeling particularly saucy. OK, it's not always an axe. Sometimes it's a piano, and sometimes they just sing. But any way you slice it, they're more talented than I.

1. Stephen King. He plays a mean rhythm guitar in an all-writer rock band called the Rock Bottom Remainders. He and some of the other people on this list get together approximately once a year and "tour" in support of various reading and writing charities (Get Caught Reading and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression among them). They have raised more than $1.5 million for their charities since the motley crew first got together in 1992. It should be noted that King plays a custom black guitar with mother-of-pearl spiders crawling up the neck. Would you expect any less?

2. Dave Barry plays lead guitar and sings in the same band, but don't let the band's website fool you (the members of the band like to play up how awful they are) "“ Barry has some musical background. While attending school at Haverford College, Barry played in a band called Federal Duck.

amy3. Amy Tan apparently harbors not-so-secret aspirations to become a dominatrix. Or maybe she's just really into her Rock Bottom singer alter ego, who wears lots of strappy leather, studded collars and carries a whip around on stage. Yes, we are talking about Amy Tan, the author who writes touching drama about Chinese-American mother-daughter duos discovering what makes each other tick. Her signature song is "These Boots Are Made For Walkin." During the song, of course, she wears knee-high leather boots.
4. Daniel Handler. You might not know the name, but I bet you know his alter ego, Lemony Snicket. Handler is the man behind the morose A Series of Unfortunate Events, but he also provides his considerable talent on the accordion for The Magnetic Fields and The Gothic Archies (I love that name).

mitch5. Mitch Albom. Some of you probably know about Mitch Albom the sportswriter and ESPN personality, and others might be fans of Mitch Albom the novelist, who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. But there's also Mitch Albom the lyricist and musician. He wrote the lyrics for a 1992 made-for-T.V.-movie called Christmas In Connecticut, and he also wrote a song about a hockey player called "Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song)". Warren Zevon recorded it before his death and both David Crosby and David Letterman contributed vocals to the song. Albom plays keyboards with the Rock Bottom Remainders and sometimes comes out dressed as Elvis during shows.

6. Ricky Gervais is an actor as well as a writer, I know, and I wasn't including actors because it seems like the actor/singer crossover field is pretty huge and unimpressive. But this one is too good to ignore. In 1982, Ricky and his friend Bill Macrae formed a group called Seona ("Shawna") Dancing. They released two singles in 1983 before disbanding, and, lucky for us, there's a video:

7. Greg Iles. If you're a fan of mysteries, you probably know Greg "“ he's responsible for eight best-sellers and the screenplay for Trapped, a 2002 film starring Charlize Theron. But he was also in the band Frankly Scarlet, but quit the music biz when his first novel, Spandau Phoenix got picked up.

8. Barbara Kingsolver. Before The Poisonwood Bible author was typing out stories, she was tickling another kind of keys "“ the ivory kind. She studied classical piano and even went to DePauw University on a piano scholarship. She changed her mind somewhere along the line, though, and ended up majoring in biology. But she put her keyboard skills to good work for a couple of years when she played for the Rock Bottom Remainders. When she stepped out in 1994, Mitch Albom was there to take her place.

Know of anyone I missed? Share them in the comments!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.