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8 Strange and Different Musical Instruments

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Middle school music classes will offer you a trumpet, flute, clarinet, drums, and a few other everyday musical instruments. Learn to play one of them and one day you may be asked to play a very different instrument that you might even fall in love with. Here are eight out of the ordinary musical instruments.

1. Lituus

The medieval lituus was a specified instrument in Bach's cantata O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht. But no modern musician had ever played, or even seen a lituus! The Swiss conservatory Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB) asked the University of Edinburgh to recreate the lituus (also known as Bach's horn) for them. They used computer modeling to design the instrument from information about what it should sound like, what it might have looked like, and the available materials and technology in Bach's time. Two identical instruments were produced, and were played in the Bach cantata in 2009. Listen to the lituus in a video here. Get a closer look at the construction of the lituus as well.

2. Gajda

A Macedonian gajda is a bagpipe made from a goat or a sheep. The animal skin is the wind bag, and occasionally you'll see one with hooves or even a head still attached. Variations of this instrument are found in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. Hear a strangely-constructed gajda in these videos.

3. Tromboon

The tromboon is an instrument that combines the reed and mouthpiece of a bassoon and the body of  trombone. The word has become a slang term meaning a mashup that combines the worst qualities of two disparate things. The term was coined by musician Peter Schickele, and is a required instrument in some works of the fictional P. D. Q. Bach. Hear the sound of a tromboon in this video. See other trombone variations as well.

4. Shakulute

A shakulute is a hybrid of a shakuhachi, or Japanese bamboo flute, and a western silver flute. The shakuhachi is blown into from the end. To make a shakulute, you attach a special head joint to your flute so it can also be blown from the end. This hybrid instrument was developed by shakuhachi maker Monty Levenson. Listen to the shakalute here.

5. Serpent

The serpent is also called a contrabass anaconda. It is an ancestor of the modern tuba and was introduced in the year 1590. The sound is made with the mouth like a trumpet or tuba, but the notes are made by covering finger holes like a flute. See more pictures of many people who play the serpent. Hear the serpent in this video.

6. Subcontrabass Flute

Flutes are usually thought of as high-pitched instruments, but there are many types of flute that are bigger and pitched lower. The subcontrabass flute plays a fourth below the contrabass flute. The pipe is 15 feet long, but doubled, so the instrument can fit into a eight-foot box. A rare variation is the The Kotato double contrabass flute, which has 18 feet of pipe. There are only four of these existing. Shown is the contraflutes of the Metropolitan Flute Orchestra in Kylemore Abbey, with the subcontrabass flutes in back. Hear what the subcontrabass flute sounds like in this video.

7. Igil

The igil is a two-stringed traditional instrument from the Tuva region of Siberia, just north of Mongolia. A very few old igils are made from a horse's skull, which reflects the legend that the igil was first created on instructions from a horse that appeared in a dream. The igil is sometimes referred to as a horse head fiddle. Hear the igil accompanying a performance of Tuvan throat singing in this video.

8. Otamatone

The otamatone is a new electronic instrument that resembles a musical note with a cartoon face. It was invented by Novmichi Tosa of Maywa Denki, an art collaboration of the Tosa family that specializes in nonsense machines. The otamatone is now available to the public. Hear this cute little instrument in this video.

Bonus: Hosaphone

The hosaphone is an instrument invented in order to parody fans and websites dedicated to other odd instruments. It appears to be a length of tubing with a funnel on the end. Hear the hosaphone here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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.

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