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A Short History of Long-Haired Music: The Classical Era, part 2

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If you missed our previous installments, check out A Short History of Long-Haired Music archives

As with the beginning of most epochs, two dandies didn’t wake up one morning in London and have the following conversation over breakfast:

Bertram: I’m tired of the same old Baroque rigamarole day in, day out. Let’s call everything from this day forward, The Classical era.

Oswig: I say, that does have a nice ring to it Bertram… Heavens!

Bertram: What is it Oswig?

Oswig: Look at the front page! Another smallpox outbreak.

Bertram: Dreadful, indeed. Kindly pass the salted meat, would you old boy?

Likewise, there was no one event in 1750 that signaled the dawning of a new musical style. The Classical era can’t claim the equivalent of the now famous July 4, 1976 concert by the Ramones at the Roundhouse in London, which put punk rock on the musical map. Perhaps this is because Johann Sebastian Bach never came up with a catchy song title like "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” If he had, maybe things would’ve been different. (Though, to be fair, he did compose a chorale, punkishly entitled, Es ist Genug!—which is German for “It is Enough!” Clearly a man well ahead of his time.)

But like the punk rock movement, the Classical era was rooted in rebellion. In punk rock’s case, artists like The Sex Pistols and The Clash were fed up with songs like “Hotel California,” with their really really long guitar solos and elaborate chord structures. They’d seen enough of Peter Gabriel prancing around stage dressed in a giant sunflower costume, leading Genesis through songs that sometimes occupied the entire side of a record.

Likewise, around 1750, musicians and composers began to move away from the heavily ornamented baroque style made famous by Bach. Young composers, including Bach’s own sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedmann, began to mimic the esthetics of ancient Greece, resurrecting the bygone culture’s clean, uncluttered style.

For the next seventy-five years or so, the music of the day became more about simplicity, beauty, and balance. Composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart considered form and proportion just as important as melody and harmony. The birth of rococo art and architecture, which coincided with the birth of one of the period’s most talented composers, Franz Joseph Haydn, had an influence, as well.

The rococo style began in France under the reign of King Louis XV, who ruled from 1715 until his death in 1774 from smallpox. Louis’s mistress, Madame du Pompadour, had an enormous influence on his aesthetics, as did Philippe, Duc d'Orleans. Between the two of them, the young king was led away from the monumental grandeur of his predecessor, Louis XIV, toward a lighter, more delicate and refined look.

At Versailles, rooms were made smaller and new furniture brought in. This seemed to be the trend at Versailles every time different king took the throne. Each successive Louis felt the need for a complete palace makeover. Had reality TV existed back then, the producers of Queer Eye for the Royal Guy surely wouldn’t have wanted for material.

Louis XV’s new rococo-for-cocoa-pops style was inspired not by the instant chocolate milk it created afterward but by decorative tree branches, flowers, coral, seaweed, and seashells. That’s where the term rococo comes from. In French, rocaille means “rocks and shells.”

In the rococo paintings of French artist Antoine Watteau, there’s a similar return to simplicity. Inspired by Classical Greek and Roman art, Watteau sought a more whimsical look reminiscent of the old wine, women and song days. Scantily clad mythological gods and goddesses pranced through open fields. Rotund ladies lounged along riverbanks, laughing, no doubt, at each other’s thunder thighs. Men cavorted about idyllic country settings in powdered wigs, a sensuality to their expressions that stood out in sharp contrast to the seriousness of the heavy religious subjects fashionable under the previous Louis.

Not unlike a new Banana Republic spring collection, Louis XV’s new look was all about fun and frivolity using soft, muted pastels and light neutral colors. From France, the zippy rococo style spread throughout Europe faster than a smallpox epidemic. When it arrived in Vienna, composers quickly figured out how to translate it into music.

[Be sure to tune in next Wednesday for Part 5 of this series!]

If you missed our previous installments, check out A Short History of Long-Haired Music archives.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”