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Behind the Lyrics: The Inspirations for 6 Famous Songs

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You know the songs, but do you know what they're really about? Here are the stories behind some popular tunes.

1. "Hey Man, Nice Shot"

In the late 1980s, Pennsylvania was embroiled in a bit of an accounting crisis. Employees of the Commonwealth had overpaid millions in FICA taxes and the state legislature began to search for an outside accounting agency to calculate the appropriate refunds. Harrisburg native John Torquato, Jr. eventually won the $4.6 million contract for his Californian-based firm, Computer Technology Associates, through a series of well-placed bribes.


A few months and an investigation by the US Attorney later, the trail led back to Budd Dwyer, State Treasurer, who was indicted for receiving $300,000 in kickbacks to help Torquato secure the business. Dwyer vehemently denied the charges, refused to step down from his post, and even passed on a plea bargain that would have carried a relatively light sentence. In December of 1986, he was found guilty of racketeering, bribery, fraud and conspiracy. After the verdict, he continued to proclaim his innocence and even wrote President Reagan asking for a pardon.

The day before his sentence was handed down, Dwyer called a press conference. After reading a prepared statement, he handed a series of sealed envelopes to staffers, pulled out a .357 Magnum, placed it in his mouth and shot himself on live television. While most of the local and national TV stations debated how much of the suicide to air (some played it in its entirety, others with only the audio), Filter used it as the inspiration for "Hey Man, Nice Shot," which garnered a fair amount of radio play in 1995.

2. "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

Turns out 1986 was an interesting time for musical inspiration. Early that year, newsman Dan Rather was assaulted on the streets of New York by a man who kept yelling "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" as he pummeled the shocked anchorman. At the time, no one could quite explain the attack.


In 1994, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe wrote "What's The Frequency Kenneth?," a song exploring the effects of the media, deliberately written in slightly unintelligible lyrics. The track became a huge hit off R.E.M.'s album Monster. But what happened to the strange man who inspired it?

The assailant was later identified as William Tager. He was arrested nine years after battering Rather when he murdered a stagehand outside The Today Show studios. Tager was a mentally disturbed individual who believed television networks were beaming secret messages into his brain using a specific frequency. Convinced if he found the correct frequency he could stop the incoming transmissions, he jumped Rather.

Dan Rather later appeared with R.E.M. on Letterman to help belt out the song.

Meanwhile, Tager is currently serving a 25-year sentence for manslaughter in Sing Sing.  He is eligible for parole later this year.

3. "Creep"

Thom Yorke was born with a paralyzed left eye and underwent a series of surgeries before the age of six, the last of which left him with a drooping eyelid. Due to his condition, during the majority of his childhood Yorke wore an eyepatch. This series of events left him awkward and shy around members of the opposite sex.

While at school, Yorke and his classmates eventually formed a band called On A Friday, as Friday was the only day of the week they could rehearse. The band continued to rehearse together as they earned university degrees, with Yorke enrolling at Exeter College.

While at Exeter, Yorke began to follow around an attractive female. Not exactly in a binoculars-from-a-tree way, just sort of admiring from a distance. However, the tables were turned one night when this girl he had been psedo-stalking showed up at one of the bands' shows. Yorke was truly unsettled.

You've probably heard his tale, because the song about it became the band's first major hit. In 1991, On A Friday changed their name to Radiohead and released it under the title "Creep."

4. "How Could She Do This To Me?"

Often considered to be one of the first concept albums, The Beatles spun out Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.  Appearing as the sixth song on side one is "She's Leaving Home," a track about a young girl who slips away from her comfortable life in the dead of night, leaving her parents stunned and grief-stricken.

Turns out the song had a very real inspiration; 17-year-old Melanie Coe.  Paul McCartney saw the news of her disappearance on the cover of The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, and wrote the verses (with bandmate John Lennon crafting the chorus).  In the article, Coe's parents confess they simply couldn't understand why Melanie would leave.  "She has everything here," her father said.

Although McCartney took some liberties with the story, Coe later confirmed the majority of the details.  Coe, who was pregnant at the time, was found ten days after her disappearance with her boyfriend (who was not the father of her child) in a nearby town.

Oddly enough, Coe and McCartney had crossed paths before.  Melanie appeared on a show called Ready, Steady Go! in which Paul was a judge.

Coe was crowned the winner of a mime contest.  This was three years before she would inspire McCartney to pen "She's Leaving Home."

5. "Fire and Rain"

James Taylor's beautiful, haunting and personal song "Fire and Rain" is composed in three parts, each with a separate story. Furthermore, the track as a whole is a tumultuous autobiography chronicling Taylor's struggle with depression, substance abuse and fame.


During his later years in high school, Taylor began to experience clinical depression. He didn't go to college (though he did later earn a degree), instead checking himself into McLean Hospital, a renowned psychiatric facility in Belmont, Massachusetts.

The first section of "Fire and Rain" describes Taylor coming to grips with the sudden death of a close friend, Suzanne Schnerr ("Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you"). At the time of her death, Taylor had just signed to The Beatles' new label, Apple Records, and was working on his first album. However, Taylor didn't find out about her death until months after she had passed away. His family and friends kept the information from him, worried he would slip back into depression.

Part two describes Taylor's struggle with alcoholism, drug abuse and depression. After checking himself out of Belmont, Taylor moved to New York to pursue a music career and became addicted to heroin. During this time, he formed a band named The Flying Machine, a short-lived project that was derailed because of his addictions. Broke and depressed, his father eventually flew in to NYC and drove him back to North Carolina, where Taylor entered a drug rehab center.

The final stanza is a retrospective on how far Taylor had traveled. Many people falsely believe the line "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" somehow refers to a plane wreck. However, it actually references Taylor's previous band The Flying Machine and his regret at their demise.

6. "I Don't Like Mondays"

The Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" is more than an anthem about struggling through the start of the week. It is a song laced in tragedy.

On January 29th, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer was staring out of a window inside her San Diego home while holding a semiautomatic .22 caliber rifle her father had given her as a Christmas present. Immediately across the street was Cleveland Elementary School, where children were arriving for the day, waiting for the principal to open the front gates. Inexplicably, Spencer opened fire.

In the aftermath of the attack, eight children and a police officer were injured. Additionally, two people died: Principal Burton Wragg, who had been trying to protect the children, and a custodian, Mike Suchar, who attempted to pull the principal to safety.

Spencer then barricaded herself inside the house for seven hours. During the standoff, she was asked by police why she chose to open fire. She replied: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day. I have to go now. I shot a pig, I think, and I want to shoot more. I'm having too much fun [to surrender]." Eventually, Spencer gave herself up to police and was convicted and sentenced to a California correctional facility, where she currently resides.

Bob Geldof, lead singer of The Boomtown Rats, was working at Georgia State University's on-campus radio station when the news came in. He used the event as the inspiration for "I Don't Like Mondays," which hit #1 in the UK during the summer of 1979.
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Tell us your favorite behind-the-lyrics story in the comments, or let us know if there's a particular song you've always wondered about.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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