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The Devil Wears Headphones: A Brief History of Backmasking

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A while back, I was browsing at a favorite used book shop and found a paperback called Backward Masking Unmasked. Written in 1983 by a youth minister named Jacob Aranza, it’s an unintentionally hilarious attempt to expose the alleged backward Satanic messages in rock music.


For example, in the chapter called “Which Way Are The Eagles Flying?” Aranza condemns the southern California group as “occultic” [sic] and as “having had dealings with members of the Satanic church.” He claims their song “Hotel California,” an ode to devil worship, contains this startlingly formal backward message: “Yes, Satan organized his own religion.”


As Aranza denounces subliminal messages that encourage everything from homosexuality to marijuana use, he cites the usual suspects – Zeppelin, Stones, Sabbath – as well as such unlikely ones as Hall & Oates (“They often impersonate women and attempt to come across to their audiences as women”) and the Bee Gees (“Robin Gibb confesses to the hobby of pornographic drawing”).

His book made me curious about the history of not only backmasking, but backwards recorded sound in general.

It began, as many things do, with Thomas Edison. After inventing the phonograph in 1877, old Tom noticed that music in reverse sounded “novel and sweet but altogether different.” In the early 1950s, avant-garde musicians began incorporating that difference into their compositions. They ran reel-to-reel tape recorders backwards, and presto - the unsettling sound of a hundred little Hoovers sucking up a melody and lyric.

A decade later, The Beatles pushed backward sounds into the mainstream with such songs as “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Later, their audio reversals came back to haunt them with the Paul Is Dead rumors. But that’s a topic for another day.

The backmasking-Satanism connection can be traced to a 1913 book by mystic Aleister Crowley, who recommended that those interested in black magic would do well to “learn how to think and speak backwards.” Sixty years later, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page moved into Crowley’s old mansion. To borrow one of Aranza’s pet phrases: “Coincidence?”

As Aranza points out in the “Stairway To Heaven?” chapter, Zep’s classic tune is full of backward messages like: “So here’s to my sweet Satan.” And such words corrupt impressionable minds.

Backmasking on the Brain

Let’s pause here to ask two questions. Can any songwriter actually write lyrics that scan forwards and backwards? And does the brain even comprehend backward messages? No to the first. And despite claims by pseudo-scientists like David John Oates that the subconscious mind can decipher phonetic reversals, there is no proof that it can, or that a person’s behavior would be influenced in any way, if it could.

That said, the brain will search for recognizable patterns in noise or gibberish. A song played backwards offers many possibilities, especially when you’re told what to listen for. As an experiment, I played Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” backwards. As unlikely a song for evil messages as I could think of. I braced myself for Satchmo getting Satanic, but the only line that leapt out from the gibberish was this: “Where’s the sandwich, dear Dolly?” A sly reference to one of his earlier hits? Coincidence?

After a decade of government attempts to legislate against backmasking (remember the PMRC?), the phenomenon peaked in 1990, when a civil action against Judas Priest alleged that they were responsible for the suicide of a teenage fan. Apparently, in the song “Better By You, Better Than Me,” they’d planted a backwards subliminal message of “Do it.” The case was dismissed.

What makes backmasking – especially the Satanic-related stuff - seem quaint today is the plethora of malevolent songs by death metal bands who put their messages front and center. To see what I mean, click around at random on the death metal archive site DarkLyrics.com. Yikes.

In tribute to the golden age of backmasking, here are three of Aranza’s top offenders:

Led Zeppelin – “Stairway To Heaven”

The Eagles – “Hotel California”

E.L.O – “Fire On High”

Feel free to weigh in with your own favorite backmasked songs.

Kcor evil gnol.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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