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Music on Wheels: 7 Bicycle Bands

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Few things go together as well as bicycles and music. If you didn't already know that, there are plenty of people who will prove it to you.

The Cycologists

Linsey Pollack has a one-man show on Cycology, the art of playing the bicycle. As Professor Squealy Deetbum, he demonstrates the music of a clarinet made from a bicycle seat stem, frame percussion, the gear cable cello, tuned wheel spokes, a handlebar harmonic flute, and other bicycle parts. He is also a member of the Cycologists, a three piece band consisting of Pollak, Ric Halstead, and Brendan Hook, all playing bicycle parts. Watch a performance of the Cycologists on video.

Frank Zappa

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Pollack is far from the first cycologist. 22-year-old Frank Zappa appeared on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 as a "musical bicyclist" and played two bicycles as instruments, after using most of his time delightfully quipping with Allen. Zappa enlisted the help of Allen and the studio band to produce spontaneous noises and poetry for this performance.

While we're on the subject, here's another example of music made with bicycle parts. These acts are few and far between, but there are other ways bands combine their love of music and their love of bicycles.

St. John's Bicycle Band

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St. John's Bicycle Band consisted of an average of twenty young men from the area of St. John's, Michigan. They marched, or rather, rode bicycles in parades and appeared at civic events all over Michigan from 1886 to 1891. They were offered a job in Ringling Brothers' circus as their parade band, but declined because many of their parents would not consent to the travel involved.

Nederlandsch Wielrijders Muziekcorps

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The Dutch Cyclist Music Corps (translated here) formed in 1927 by Dutch army conscripts. They had armrests welded to their bicycle handlebars so they could play while riding in formation.

Crescendo

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The Crescendo Cycling Brass Band has been riding bikes and playing pop music since 1973. They were just a regular marching band from Opende in the Netherlands before then, when they decided to spice up their act with bicycles. The bicycle routine became so popular they've been asked to perform all over Europe and as far away as Japan.

bicycle

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The band bicycle (with a lower case b) took their show on the road in 1995 with a bicycle tour across America. They stopped in small towns along the way, made new fans, and sold records. They did it again, and again, and drew more publicity and even sponsorships from bike companies. Then finally they were offered a record contract! The band still plays together occasionally. You can keep up with bicycle through their MySpace page.

The Ginger Ninjas

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The Ginger Ninjas are taking music and bicycling a step further by using bikes as a green energy source, for both transportation and stage power.

"In 2007, the Ginger Ninjas became the first band in the history of rock and roll to tour by bicycle, unsupported by automobile. On a 5,000 mile [8,000 km] odyssey from their home in Northern California to the pyramids of southern Mexico, they promoted transportation cycling while also exploring the frontiers of pedal-generated electricity, using their own bikes to power a hyper-efficient sound system."

Find out more about the Ginger Ninjas at YouTube.

Even if you aren't part of a band, you can participate in bicycle music by attending a bicycle music festival. Or you could get some friends together and perform a piece written just for bicycles. Or watch for your opportunity to join a public performance of bicycle music. If you find this is your cup of tea, you might end up the star of the next big bicycle band!

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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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