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The Quick 10: 10 "Fifth Beatles"

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09.09.09: It's Beatlemania all over again. At least, it is at my house. And to some degree, here on the _floss "“ we've covered Nine Things You Probably Didn't Know About the Beatles and Nine Women Who Inspired Beatles Songs. And now we bring you 10 people who have some sort of claim to the "Fifth Beatle" nickname. Lots of musicians and friends of the band have been unofficially bestowed the honor over the years "“ here are just a few of them.

stuart1. Stuart Sutcliffe. Poor, tragic Stu. He was the Beatles' original bassist (John Lennon's best friend) back in the very early days when they were going by The Silver Beetles. He wasn't a great bass player "“ his real talent was painting "“ and left the group of his own volition in 1961, and tragically died of an intracranial brain hemorrhage on April 10, 1962, at the very young age of 21. The Beatles paid homage to him by including their first bass player on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And if you're interested in Sutcliffe and his early role with the Beatles, check out Backbeat, a movie starring Stephen Dorff as Sutcliffe. Paul didn't care for the movie, for the record.

best2. Pete Best is probably the man who is most often referred to as the Fifth Beatle. He was the pre-Ringo drummer and was chosen in part because of his drumming skills, sure, but also because he had quite the female following, which Paul McCartney felt would help the group. There have been different stories over the years as to why Best was replaced. George Martin has said that he preferred a stronger drummer to give the rest of the band a good base, and various other members of the extended Beatle family have said that Best just didn't mesh well with the rest of the band on a personal level and refused to conform to the band style. Either way, manager Brian Epstein gave Best the boot, much to the chagrin of female fans who adored the brooding Best. They showed up at concerts chanting "Pete Forever, Ringo Never" and heckled the band throughout their sets.

Epstein013. Speaking of Brian Epstein, Paul McCartney once said that if anyone held claim to the Fifth Beatle title, it was Brian, and George Martin concurred. Epstein was the Beatles' manager form 1961 until he died in 1967 and was pretty key in the band's stratospheric rise. He was the glue that held the Beatles together and when he passed away after an accidental drug overdose, John Lennon knew the Fab Four were finished. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon commented, "I knew that we were in trouble then... I thought, "˜We've [expletive] had it now.'"

aspinall4. And 5. Derek Taylor and Neil Aspinall. These nominations for Fifth Beatle came from George Harrison. Derek Taylor was a journalist who gave the Beatles one of their first rave reviews. As a result, he became entrenched in the scene and eventually started writing press releases for the Liverpudlians. When Apple Corps was formed, he was named press officer. Similarly, Aspinall (pictured) started out as a mere road manager with the band, then rose to personal assistant and finally Apple Corps CEO. You can also hear him on a few recordings "“ he played harmonica on "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and sang in the chorus of "Yellow Submarine."

martin6. George Martin, who produced a vast majority of the Beatles' recordings, is another member of the Beatles posse who often gets tagged with the Fifth Beatle moniker. But not only did he produce most of their music, he also arranged strings and horns for most of their songs that called for them and wrote the entire instrumental part of the Yellow Submarine album. He also played keys on a couple of songs, including the Baroque-inspired piece in "In My Life."

JIMMY7. It's the night before the Beatles' Australasian leg of their 1964 tour is supposed to kick off, and Ringo abruptly comes down with acute tonsillitis. What do you do? You call in Jimmy Nicol. Jimmy had drummed on a cover album of Beatles hits and knew all of the songs, so he was a natural fit for the group. He actually wore Ringo's clothes on stage.

clapton8. Eric Clapton contributed his considerable talents on the guitar to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," but the reason he is occasionally referred to as the Fifth Beatle is because of his close friendships with all of the band members, especially George Harrison. In fact, Clapton and Harrison even shared a wife (not at the same time, of course "“ Clapton married Pattie Boyd after she and Harrison divorced).

billy9. Billy Preston is only one of two artists to ever receive joint-billing with The Beatles "“ the "Get Back" single credits "The Beatles with Billy Preston." John even once suggested that Billy become the Fifth Beatle. Preston played on the Get Back sessions on quite a few occasions, and played during the famous rooftop performance. Post break-up, he appeared on projects by both Ringo and George.

griffiths10. Eric Griffiths dates back to even before Stuart Sutcliffe. In the late "˜50s, the group that would be known as the Silver Beetles and then the Beatles were then known as the Blackjacks before evolving into the Quarrymen. When Paul McCartney was invited to join the Quarrymen, and then George Harrison, Griffiths was booted out. Except no one actually told him "“ they just failed to invite him to practices after that. When he eventually called to see when the next practice was, he was informed that he was no longer needed at said practices.

Who do you think is the most-qualified to be the Fifth Beatle?

If you're like me and need to satiate your Beatles fix until you can play the game, here are a few more _floss posts on the Fab Four:
Happy Anniversary, Abbey Road!
Also, More on Abbey Road
Name that Beatles Album
It Was 42 Years Ago Today
With a Little Help from my Floss

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]