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The Late Movies: Joni Mitchell, Then and Now

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OK, I have a confession to make: I'm a big wuss and I love Joni Mitchell. It's almost all my mom listened to while I was growing up, so even before I started discovering music on my own, I was pretty familiar with most of her stuff from the late 60s through the 80s. A lot of people love the old classics -- her 1971 album Blue still makes a lot of critical "desert island" top ten lists -- and while I certainly do too, I think she's done interesting and innovative work since then as well, much of which gets overlooked.

So this is a special kind of list. It's one especially good song from every Joni Mitchell album in chronological order, which, if listened to from start to finish, should provide an interesting snapshot of the progression of her style (from the folky 60s to the jazzy 70s and poppy 80s and then back to her folk roots in the 90s and beyond) and her voice, which gets gravelly and deep as the years wear on (she's been a smoker for decades, and you can tell; though she can't hit the high notes like she used to, I think it gives her voice a cool, weathered quality).

Song for a Seagull: "Cactus Tree" (1969)

The big hit from her debut album, the one that launched her into stardom, back in her flowy-gowned, ethereal hippie days.

Clouds: "Songs to Aging Children Come" (1969)

Another sparsely arranged album, mostly just Joni's voice and guitar. This is an early example of her musical experimentation -- there are certainly more popular songs from this album ("Both Sides Now," for instance), but the Allmusic guide credits this song with having "perhaps the most remarkably sophisticated chord sequence in all of pop music." I couldn't find her original on YouTube -- this is a cover version used in the film Alice's Restaurant.

Ladies of the Canyon: "For Free" (1970)

The album's title refers to the Laurel Canyon neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills of LA, where Mitchell and a lot of other music scenesters of the era lived, and the album deals with the complexities of celebrity and love and the Woodstock generation in a really lucid and honest way. This song -- among her best, I think -- captures the mixed feelings she must've had about her sudden fame and fortune.

OK, I'm breaking my rule and including a second song from this album -- "Rainy Night House," which is so snaky and jazzy and unlike much of what she'd done up to this point. I feel like this is the song that kind of points her way into the 70s, musically. She's definitely leaving behind the ethereal hippie girl vibe here. (This is a live version recorded a few years after the album was released.)

Blue: "A Case of You" (1971)

In January 2000, the New York Times chose Blue as one of the 25 albums that represented "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music." I couldn't agree more -- every song on this album is like an intricate little gem. They're all worthy of posting here, but this song gets me every time. This performance looks like it's from the late 70s or early 80s -- but I think it still resonates loud and clear.

For the Roses: "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (1972)

Her big hit on this album was "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio" -- written semi-sarcastically after record company execs requested she turn out a radio-friendly song -- but I think it's one of her least interesting. There's way more soul in this track, about a heroin addict searching for "lady relief" --

Court and Spark: "Court and Spark"(1974)

Her best-selling album ever, recorded after a two-year hiatus from the music biz. It's clear she spent those years listening to a lot of jazz, because it's infused throughout what used to be a much more straightforwardly folky sound. I've always loved this one --

And speaking of jazz, Herbie Hancock and Norah Jones' cover of it ain't bad either:

The Hissing of Summer Lawns: "Edith and the Kingpin" (1975)

OK, this is where most people who like "early" Joni Mitchell check out and stop paying attention, but I think some of her most interesting work starts here. She completely reinvents her sound on this album -- again -- and the result are these complex, multilayered, snaky, jazzy numbers that paint these very cinematic portraits of little situations and moments in time. I can't think of anything else that sounds like this, before or since. (Also, this is when musical geniuses in their own right like Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny became part of her sound -- her "band," I guess you could call them.)

Hejira: "Amelia" (1976)

Sparse and thoughtful, these were songs written on a cross-country road trip. I think this homage to Amelia Earhart is the standout.

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter: "Overture/Cotton Avenue" (1977)

Super experimental, improvisational, and loose, it's one of her least accessible but most intriguing albums (and definitely one of her least known). Lots of overdubbing and harmonies here create big, weird sonic landscapes -- and bassist Jaco Pastorius does some of his best work here, especially in this song (which kicks into high gear around 2:00 -- wait for it).

joni-mingus

Mingus: "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" (1979)

Recorded with jazz pioneer Charles Mingus in the months before his death, it would be Mingus' final recording effort, and the album is dedicated wholly to him. Joni also painted the above picture of Mingus -- included as an LP album insert (which I have framed and hung on the wall of my office, FYI). Also notable as the first album she released while I was, like, alive.

Try not to tap your feet to the funky-ass jive she and Jaco lay down on this track, I dare you.

Wild Things Run Fast: "Moon at the Window" (1982)

Another reinvention of her sound. There are several tracks on this album that are definitely of the 80s -- and I don't think they're among her best work -- but there are a number of gems, like this one. Interestingly, Joni said in an interview that the Police influenced the change in her sound: "their rhythmic hybrids, and the positioning of the drums, and the sound of the drums, was one of the main calls out to me to make a more rhythmic album."

Dog Eat Dog: "Ethiopia" (1985)

Warning: this album is HEAVILY 80s. Lots of fans were pissed about all the synths she used (Thomas Dolby produced some of the tracks), and it's fascinating how angry a lot of these songs are -- though it seems a heartfelt reaction to the materialism of the 80s. This song isn't my fave or anything, but it just seems so quintessentially of the time -- that awful famine in Ethiopia seemed like it was the only thing on the news when I was growing up -- that it captures the album for me.

Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm: "The Beat of Black Wings" (1988)

The last of her super-synthy 80s albums, it has a few standouts, and is notable, I think, for how political it is. She rails against consumerism, commercialism and the destruction of Native American culture (and Native American musical tropes pop up throughout the songs). In case their are kids in the room: Joni talks about abortion and drops a big fat F-bomb in this one.

Night Ride Home: "Passion Play" (1991)

A return to form, in my opinion. She ditches most of the synths, gets out the guitar and the piano, and kicks ass. There are several great songs here. I'm including three. It's that good!

"Slouching Towards Bethlehem"

A brilliant musical rendition of Yeats' seminal poem. Truly powerful. (Please ignore the video's insanely annoying on-the-nose graphics, however. Maybe hide the window?)

Two Grey Rooms

A heartfelt piano ballad inspired by a story about German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who, amid the repression of Germany's antigay Paragraph 175 laws, was left broken-hearted by a male lover in his youth. In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell says of the song:

It's a story of obsession ... about this German aristocrat who had a lover in his youth that he never got over. He later finds this man working on a dock and notices the path that the man takes every day to and from work. So the aristocrat gives up his fancy digs and moves to these two shabby gray rooms overlooking this street, just to watch this man walk to and from work.

She's released several albums since then, my favorite being Turbulent Indigo, but videos of the songs are tough to find. Check out her rendition (songification?) of the Book of Job (no kidding), called "The Sire of Sorrow." Dang.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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