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Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 

This Song's a Killer: The Strange Tale of "Gloomy Sunday"

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Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 

In Vienna, a teenage girl drowned herself while clutching a piece of sheet music. In Budapest, a shopkeeper killed himself and left a note that quoted from the lyrics of the same song. In London, a woman overdosed while listening to a record of the song over and over.

The piece of music that connects all these deaths is the notorious “Gloomy Sunday.” Nicknamed the “Hungarian suicide song,” it has been linked to over one hundred suicides, including the one of the man who composed it.

Of course, this might all be an urban legend.

One thing’s for sure, though. “Gloomy Sunday’s” composer Rezso Seress did take his life, and the success of his greatest hit may have been a contributing factor.

Sad Songs Say So Much

In 1933, the Hungarian-born Seress (née Rudi Spitzer) was a 34-year-old struggling songwriter.

Some accounts have him living in Paris, others Budapest. The story goes that after his girlfriend left him, he was so depressed that he wrote the melody that became “Gloomy Sunday.” A minor-key ribbon of blue smoke, the tune was given an equally melancholy lyric - in Hungarian - by Seress’s friend, the poet Laszlo Javor. Some reports claim it was Javor’s girlfriend who left him, inspiring the song as a poem first. Others say that Seress wrote his own lyric, about war and apocalypse, then Javor later changed it to a heartbreak ballad.

Whatever the case, “Szomorú Vasárnap,” as it was titled, didn’t make much of a splash at first. But two years later, a recorded version by Pál Kálmar was connected to a rash of suicides in Hungary. The song was then allegedly banned. Short of learning Hungarian and trawling through Budapest newspapers from the 1930s, it is impossible to verify any of this (Hungary does historically have one of the higher suicide rates in the world - approximately 46 out of every 100,000 people take their own lives there every year).

But it certainly makes for a juicy story. And it did at the time, too, because music publishers from America and England soon came calling.

Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Sam M. Lewis and British theater lyricist Desmond Carter each wrote an English translation of the song. It was Lewis's version, recorded in 1936 by Hal Kemp and his Orchestra, that caught on.

Sam Lewis, best known for chirpy hits such as “I’m Gonna Sit Write Down And Write Myself A Letter,” stayed close to the bitter despair of the original. Here’s his second verse:

“Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad, I know
Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go
Death is no dream, for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you.”

Lewis did make one concession to commerciality by tacking on a third verse that beamed a ray of light into the tune’s darkness. It began:

“Dreaming, I was only dreaming,
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, dear.”

In 1941, Billie Holiday recorded the definitive version of “Gloomy Sunday.” Having the hard-living Lady Day associated with the song certainly upped the tragedy ante.

Despite conflicting reports, the song was never officially banned in the U.S., though it was in England. In the early ‘40s, the BBC deemed the song “too upsetting” for the public, then later said that only instrumental versions could be played on the radio.

In 1984, “Gloomy Sunday” was in the news again, by association, when Ozzy Osbourne was taken to court by the parents of a teen who shot himself while listening to the rocker’s song “Suicide Solution.” In 1999, a German film, Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday - A Song of Love and Death), told the story of a doomed love triangle and a song that triggered a chain of suicides. And in recent years, the song has been recorded by such artists as Elvis Costello, Sarah McLachlan and Heather Nova.

What Became of Rezso Seress?

During World War II, he was put in a labor camp by the Nazis, which he survived. After that, he worked in the theater and the circus, where he was a trapeze artist. He later returned to songwriting, though he never had another hit as big as “Gloomy Sunday.”

In fact, the story goes that when the song first became a success, Seress attempted to reconcile with the ex who inspired it. Shortly after, he heard that she had poisoned herself, and there was a copy of the sheet music of the song nearby (in other versions of the story, she left a note with just two words: "Gloomy Sunday"). Whether that’s true or not, Seress himself did commit suicide, in 1968, jumping from the window of a Budapest apartment building.

Seress once wrote of his conflicted emotions towards his morbid masterpiece: “I stand in the midst of this deadly success as an accused man. This fatal fame hurts me. I cried all of the disappointments of my heart into this song, and it seems that others with feelings like mine have found their own hurt in it.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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.

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