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8 Weird and Wonderful Musical Instruments

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If an object can produce a tone, someone somewhere will make a musical instrument out of it. Some are handed down from antiquity and some are a product of the internet age, but all eight of these are instruments most people are not familiar with.

1. Lithophone

A lithophone is literally a stone instrument. It resembles a xylophone that Fred Flintstone might try to play, in which you strike stones of different sizes to create different tones. The lithophone shown is an exhibit at Questacon Centre in Canberra, Australia, where anyone can play it! However, lithophones can take many forms. The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns is another example of a lithophone. Hear a lithophone performance at YouTube.

2. Udderbot

An udderbot is a musical instrument that consists of a bladder of some sort (often a rubber glove) containing water and a bottomless glass bottle for a mouthpiece. The instrument was developed by Jacob Barton in 2005. He had been playing glass bottles, which give a different pitch according to the level of water in them. Barton figured it would be much easier if one could vary the level of water in one bottle instead of using many bottles, so the udderbot was born. You play the instrument by blowing across the top of the glass bottle and vary the pitch by squeezing the glove to raise or lower the water level. Hear an udderbot performance at YouTube. Instructions are available to make your own udderbot.

3. Kazookeylele

The kazookeylele is a hybrid ukulele, toy piano, and kazoo combination developed by Stuart David Crout, one half of the Scottish ukulele duo Pocket Fox. Hear a kazookeylele performance at YouTube.

4. Glass Armonica

The glass armonica was one of Benjamin Franklin's inventions. The idea was to recreate the sound of music made with wine glasses and other crystallophones without the bother of setting up and tuning many glasses for each performance. The instrument is a rotating axis fitted with glass discs of different sizes that would be touched by wet fingers. Its first performance was in 1762, and was used widely in Europe for a short time. However, as orchestras and the halls they played in grew larger, the glass armonica was abandoned because it wasn't loud enough to be heard at any significant distance. The instrument is also known as a glass harmonica or just an armonica. See a glass armonica performance at YouTube.

5. Chapman Stick

A Chapman stick is an electronic instrument developed by jazz musician Emmett Chapman in the 1970s. It is a stringed fretboard that you tap with either or both hands. The electronics eliminate the need for picking so that the act of fretting actually plays the note. Hear a Chapmen stick performance at YouTube. Image by Flickr user SD Dirk.

6. Berimbau

The berimbau is a musical bow from Brazil that originated in Africa. The bow is four to five feet long, with a resonator made from a gourd at the bottom. The string is tapped with a stick and the tone is controlled by a rock held against the string. Hear the berimbau in this performance on YouTube. Image by Flickr user Alper Çuğun.

7. Jal Tarang

The instrument called Jal Tanrang is sometimes called the musical bowls of India. Similar to a water bottle xylophone, the Jal Tarang is a series of china bowls with varying levels of water which are tapped lightly with a wooden mallet. Hear a Jal Tarang performance at YouTube.

8. Eigenharp

The Eigenharp is promoted as a replacement for a piano, guitar, and woodwind all in one instrument. The Eigenharp has only been in use by the public since 2009. John Lambert began research on the electronic instrument in 2001, with the express goal of creating an instrument that would be more expressive than conventional electronics, and more versatile than the array of instruments that musicians have to haul to live performances. The Eigenharp is close to a classic instrument in that the keys respond to pressure and velocity and the breath pipe can also be used to control the sound. It also has the advantages of electronic instruments in that there are controllers that add effects and drums and a sequencer that can be programmed for accompaniment. There are three models available with different levels of features, priced accordingly. Hear an Eigenharp trio at YouTube.

Your favorite odd instrument not found here might be found in the posts 8 Strange and Different Musical Instruments, Mother Nature's Music, You play a what? or On Music: 5 Peculiar Instruments.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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