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The Vice President Who Wrote a Hit Song

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History buffs might know the name Charles Dawes, which probably sounds vaguely familiar but can’t-quite-place-him to the rest of us. Here’s a refresher: he was Calvin Coolidge’s vice president. They hated each other.

Long before he was Coolidge’s second-in-command, however, Dawes was a pianist and composer. In fact, he was a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a fraternity for men “who, through a love of music, can assist in the fulfillment of its object and ideals by adopting music as a profession or by working to advance the cause of music in America.”

Though Dawes obviously didn’t adopt music as a profession (unless he entertained Silent Cal by tickling the ivories in the Oval Office), he definitely made his mark on music in America. In 1912, besieged by a bit of music he couldn’t get out of his head, Dawes wrote a pretty piano and violin piece called “Melody in A Major.” It became pretty popular, which Dawes, by then a banker, found amusing: “Few bankers have won renown as composers of music. I know that I will be the target of my punster friends. They will say that if all the notes in my bank are as bad as my musical ones, they are not worth the paper they were written on.”

After an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 1901, Dawes declared himself done with politics. But politics had other plans for him – in 1921, Dawes was appointed the first-ever Director of the Bureau of the Budget under Warren G. Harding. And in 1924, after going through at least three other possible vice president candidates (two declined the nomination and the third, Herbert Hoover, was too unpopular), Calvin Coolidge agreed to have Dawes as his vice president. A rather unpopular vice president, but that’s another post.

In the end, Dawes would have been quite glad if his bank notes had been as valuable as his musical ones, because when songwriter Carl Sigman added some words to the tune in 1951 and renamed it "It's All in the Game," the song was suddenly a pop hit. Tommy Edwards took the song to #38 on the Billboard charts that year, but it peaked at #1 seven years later when Edwards recorded it again in a rock ‘n’ roll style. Since then, the song has been covered by Elton John, Barry Manilow, Mama Cass, Nat King Cole, Van Morrison and many others.

To date, Dawes is the only Vice President to have a song chart at #1 (better get on it, Biden), though he missed the whole thing - he died in April 1951; Sigman added lyrics that summer.

Here’s a rendition of Dawes’ “Melody in A Major”:

Here’s the Tommy Edwards version that became a hit in 1958:

Here’s the Four Tops’ version:

And, just for fun, here’s Isaac Hayes loaning his velvety vocals to the song (the melody starts around 1:04):

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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