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The Late Movies: Dancing in the Dark

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"Dancing in the Dark" was a huge hit for Bruce Springsteen in 1984. Its music video, directed by Brian DePalma, featured a young Courteney Cox -- in a live performances of the song, the video showed Springsteen inviting Cox onstage for a quick dance. This pattern repeated in virtually all future performances of the song, with female fans being brought onstage during the sax solo (and yeah, you know the "Dancing in the Dark" dance -- don't pretend you don't). Twenty-five years after the iconic video premiered, Springsteen brought his mom onstage for the dance, and we can presume she's his biggest fan.

Although most people assume "Dancing in the Dark" is a simple love song (based on its uptempo performance and famous video), the song was actually borne out of frustration over the business of writing an album. Springsteen's manager/producer Jon Landau felt that the Born in the USA album was incomplete, because it didn't include a clear hit song. Indeed, although "Born in the USA," "Glory Days," and "I'm on Fire" ended up being successful songs, "Dancing in the Dark" was a major chart success and won Springsteen a Grammy. Anyway, Landau and Springsteen argued over the issue, and Springsteen relented, writing "Dancing in the Dark" as the final song for the album. Here are some sample lyrics, apparently describing Springsteen's mood as he penned Landau's requested "hit":

I get up in the evening, and I ain't got nothing to say.
I come home in the morning, I go to bed feeling the same way.
I ain't nothing but tired, man I'm just tired and bored with myself.
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help ...

Messages keep gettin' clearer, radio's on and I'm moving 'round the place.
I check my look in the mirror: wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face!
Man I ain't gettin' nowhere, just livin' in a dump like this.
There's something happening somewhere. Baby, I just know that there is...

You sit around getting older; there's a joke here somewhere and it's on me.
I'll shake this world off my shoulders; come on baby, the laugh's on me.
Stay on the streets of this town and they'll be carving you up all right.
They say you gotta stay hungry? Hey baby, I'm just about starving tonight!
I'm dying for some action. I'm sick of sitting around here trying to write
this book.
I need a love reaction. Come on baby, gimme just one look.

Sounds like a classic frustrated writer to me. "Sitting around here trying to write this book" indeed! Below, I've collected some of my favorite versions of this classic song. Enjoy, and post your favorites in the comments.

Amy MacDonald (2009)

If you haven't heard of Amy MacDonald, you're missing out. In this version, she has changed at least her hair, if not her clothes and face. (Incidentally, here's Springsteen performing at the same concert, though the video quality is awful. "Dancing in the Dark" starts around 1:57.)

Tegan and Sara (2005)

This is a nice acoustic version; also worth checking out: this version with Matt Sharp of Weezer (including extensive intro) and this rockin' live version.

Ted Leo (2007)

Live, solo, at Bumbershoot in Seattle. Hardcore. See also: this slightly muffled version.

The Shadows (1986)

Now this is the 80's I remember.

Big Daddy (1985)

Complete with "Moody River" piano, this is effectively a 50's ballad style rewrite of the song.

Mat Kearney (2008?)

See also this live version, a bit more uptempo.

Naked Brothers Band (2000-something)

It gets surprisingly rocky, though they're not entirely credible singing about aging just yet.

Uni (2008)

Live in Finland.

Arcade Fire (Date Unknown)

Incomplete video, sort of a half-medley with "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Wow.

Bruce Springsteen (1984), Original Video

Compare this to the following live performance video.

Bruce Springsteen (1984)

Live in Toronto. Awesome.

Post Your Favorites

Got a favorite "Dancing in the Dark" or other Springsteen cover? Post a link in the comments! See also, yesterday's Late Movies: The Late Movies: Happy Birthday, Clarence Clemons! (Clemons is the sax player in The E Street Band.) Apparently it's turning into Springsteen Week here.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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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.