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Roll Over Beethoven: 6 Modern Deaf Musicians

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Famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven began to lose his hearing around the age of 25. By the time of his death, he was completely deaf. But that never stopped him from writing some of the most beautiful music the world has ever known. Beethoven is proof that music isn't just in the ears, but comes from the heart and from the soul. His legacy is carried on today by many deaf and hard of hearing musicians, including these six performers who don't need to hear to express themselves through song.

Mandy Harvey

Jazz singer Mandy Harvey always had a hearing problem. In her youth, she'd had infections that affected her hearing, but only to the point that she had to sit at the front of the class in order to understand the lecture. Her hearing loss was never enough to keep her from pursuing her passion - music. When she entered Colorado State University, she had every intention of becoming a vocal music professor upon graduation. That is until her hearing began to rapidly deteriorate, and, despite medical treatment, she lost hearing in both ears during her Freshman year.

For the next year she was plunged into a deep depression, but she eventually came out of her funk when she realized she could still play music on the piano and use her perfect pitch to simply remember how to sing the notes. While Harvey says her hearing loss is categorized as "profound," meaning she can only hear anything over about 110 decibels, she is still able to "feel" the music as so many deaf musicians can, by sensing the vibrations of the bass and rhythms. She also uses her talents as a piano player to watch her favorite accompanist, Mark Sloniker, as he hits notes and chords to help her stay on cue. It's through these adaptations that Harvey has launched a career despite her hearing loss, releasing her debut album, Smile, in 2009, and performing a weekly gig at Jay's Bistro in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Sean Forbes

Sean Forbes has been deaf as long as he can remember. He's also wanted to be a musician for just as long. Forbes became profoundly deaf when he developed a severe illness at only one year old. However, both of his parents played in bands, so music was a constant part of his childhood, whether it be from an instrument or from the stereo that was playing hits from The Beatles and Motown. Attracted to the vibrations from the beat, he first started playing the drums around the age of five, but moved up to guitar and bass by the time he was 10. The rap thing came later, though with the genre's use of room-shaking bass, it should come as no surprise he'd gravitate towards the music. After shooting an American Sign Language music video of fellow Detroit rapper Eminem's Lose Yourself, Forbes got noticed by Eminem's studio, 54 Sound, who helped produce his debut EP, I'm Deaf. (You can check out the music video for the title track here.) The EP helped Forbes gain the attention of BMI, who signed him to a record contract earlier this year.

But for Forbes, his career doesn't stop at a record deal. He has also turned his attention to other deaf artists by starting a non-profit organization called D-PAN (Deaf Performing Arts Network). D-PAN helps find and promote creative opportunities for deaf artists in a variety of fields, as well as produces American Sign Language videos of popular songs so that everyone can enjoy the music around them.

Beethoven's Nightmare

For three teenagers attending Galludet University, a school for deaf and hard of hearing students in Washington, D.C., it wasn't their disability that brought them together, but their love of rock 'n' roll. In 1971, Bob Hiltermann (drums), Ed Chevy (bass guitar), and Steve Longo (guitar) had dreams of playing on stage - and they weren't about to let their deafness hold them back. The trio soon formed Beethoven's Nightmare, the first all-deaf band in the world. With a show featuring screaming guitars, screeching vocals, and plenty of attitude, the only thing separating them from a "normal" band has been their use of sign language on stage.

Over nearly 40 years, like so many bands do, the group has broken up and gotten back together a few times, but they're here to stay since the release of their 2006 debut album, Turn It Up Louder. In support of the album, the group has been making special appearances at conferences for deaf organizations, as well as playing gigs at night clubs across the country. (Watch a clip from a gig here.) They have also been featured in a documentary currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit, See What I'm Saying, which highlights the struggles and triumphs of deaf performing artists.

Janine Roebuck

Progressive deafness ran in the family, but Britain's Janine Roebuck wasn't worried. She'd never had problems before, so she continued to pursue her love of music. However, while she was studying at Manchester University, she noticed that some sounds were starting to fade. After a hearing test, she was told, "Sing while you can, because you'll never have a career in music." Despite the prognosis, Roebuck continued her studies at the Royal Northern College of Music before moving on to the Paris Conservatoire and the National Opera Studio in London.

For 10 years, she kept her hearing loss a secret from all but her closest friends. She didn't even tell conductors, because she was worried about losing roles, or worse, getting roles simply because they felt sorry for her. So she found ways to hide her disability and adapt to her hearing level as it deteriorated. However, the stress of keeping up her charade became too much and she finally decided to get fitted for hearing aids. She was surprised to find that, rather than be scared off by her disability, many conductors were inspired by her courage, and her career has continued to grow. Shortly after she made her hearing loss public, she began working with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), the UK's largest charitable organization working for the deaf and hard of hearing. She became a trustee of the group in 2007 and has become one of the most vocal and respected proponents for the deaf community of Britain. You can watch a clip of her performance at the 2009 AMI Awards here.

Dame Evelyn Glennie

Every musical genre needs its outsider. The person who breaks the rules and breaks new ground for everyone else. For deaf musicians, their rebel without a cause is Scotland's Dame Evelyn Glennie. Not only is she the first professional solo percussionist, but she has also been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. Glennie is without a doubt the best-known deaf musician in the world, with a résumé that includes a Grammy-winning album, 25 solo albums, and more than 100 performances every year in venues all over the world. She has collaborated with some of the best orchestras and artists in music today, including such notables as Björk, Sting, and pianist Emanuel Ax. She released a Grammy-nominated album with banjo player extraordinaire Bela Fleck and even played a brief stint with a certain Grouch on Sesame Street. For her contributions to music, she has been awarded the title of Dame Commander, nearly the highest order of British chivalry.

However, if you visit Glennie's website, you probably won't even find a mention of her hearing loss. While she doesn't hide her deafness, she also doesn't promote it, preferring that people look beyond her condition, which she sees as "an irrelevant part of the equation." This preference has meant an uneasy relationship with others in the deaf community. She has been vocal about her refusal to learn sign language, as well as her belief that deaf children should not be sequestered into specialized schools. It is her belief that teaching deaf people that they are different is hindering them from achieving greatness. However, as the years have gone by, life experiences have helped her see some things in a new light. In 2008, after resisting for three decades, she started learning sign language, saying, "Your life changes and the choices you make change. I have a different view now, and I think it's good to keep an open mind."

The Hi-Notes

The future of deaf musicians is brighter than ever. Thanks to the UK charity group Music and the Deaf, kids are getting the chance to play as part of two musical groups – The Deaf Youth Orchestra and The Hi-Notes, which specializes in student-composed pieces.

Headed up by Danny Lane, who has been profoundly deaf since birth, the eight students that make up the Hi-Notes collaborate and experiment to write songs that are truly from the perspective of deaf musicians. Their songs are often experimental in nature and composed for the vibrations and sensations the young musicians receive as feedback, but also pleasing to the listening audience's ear.

In 2008, the Hi-Notes were chosen to take part in the Music for Youth Schools Prom, an event bringing together the best and brightest young musicians from across the UK. These artists are given the chance to perform in front of thousands of fans inside the Royal Albert Hall, a legendary venue known as one of the cultural centers of Britain. Under the direction of Lane, the Hi-Notes played their own piece, "Tutankhamen's Curse," an auditory exploration of the discovery of the boy king's tomb, receiving a rousing applause and breaking new ground in the art of deaf music. You can watch their performance here; it starts around the 3:45 mark.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]