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Pyrophonia: Music on Fire

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"Flaming" and "on fire" are words used all the time for musicians who are "burning it up," or playing with talent and fervor. The phrases are usually not meant to be taken literally. But the universal human fascination with fire and music is sometimes combined into instruments that are literally on fire. And they come in all shapes and sizes, like these ten. Warning: these projects are dangerous, and should be left to professionals.

1. Flamebone or Frankenhorn

Jonathon Crawford (who goes by the handle Pyro) added fire to his trombone, with what appears to be an acetylene torch. Scott was inspired to make his own "Flamebone" (pictured) by connecting a torch and an air compressor to his horn.

It has a 21 foot range with the fireball, and a concussion wave of 150 feet. It can be difficult to play since it has a recoil.

Does it need to be said that this can be dangerous, and should never be tried inside?

2. Tubatron

Animator David Silverman is best known as the director of The Simpsons Movie and many episodes of the TV show. But he is also a musician. He plays the Tubatron, or flaming Sousaphone. The instrument is rigged with a propane tank that feeds flames Silverman can control. You can see him perform every year at Burning Man, or at YouTube.

3. Flaming Tuba

The Sousaphone is not alone as far as fire-belching bass horns go. This gentleman plays a flaming tuba on the street in Bratislava, Slovakia. I haven't found any information on him, but he's been recorded on video many times.

4. Pyrophone

The word pyrophone literally means "fire sound." The instrument is a series of pipes like an organ or calliope, but the sound is made by applying combustion to the pipes, usually with propane or gasoline. The pyrophone is, essentially, the dangerous opposite of the hydraulophone. Early pyrophones of the 18th and 19th centuries resembled pipe organs, although they worked like steam calliopes powered by internal combustion generators. Modern pyrophones are more likely to be homemade experiments in explosion technology, as you can see in this video performance. Nathan Stodola designed the pyrophone pictured here, which he named the Thermoacoustic Organ, or Fire Organ. The heat is provided by propane, and the pipes are cooled with liquid nitrogen. The cooling allows the pipes to be played and then replayed sooner than other pyrophones. Watch Stodola's Fire Organ in action in this video.

5. The Pyrophone Juggernaut

The Pyrophone Juggernaut is a fire organ played by directing the flames of a blowtorch into the various pipes. See a performance on video. Image by Flickr user John Goodridge.

6. L'Orgue à Feu

French sculptor Michel Moglia built the L'Orgue à Feu in 1989. This fire organ is 7 meters long and 9 meters high! It plays on 200 stainless steel tubes of different sizes. You can witness a performance of this instrument at YouTube. Image by Thierry Nava.

7. Fire Horn

Ariel Schlesinger noticed that a can of butane to refill lighters was cheaper than a can of compressed air. That gave him the idea to fuel an air horn with a butane canister to produce a Fire Horn. Not only is it an economical way to power the horn, but also have a pyrotechnic show to go along with it. Does that sound dangerous to you? Schlesinger has a video of the flaming horn at his site.

8. Ruben's Tube

The Ruben's Tube, or standing wave flame tube, began as an experiment to show the relationship between sound and pressure. A tube with holes is filled with flammable gas, and a speaker is attached. The pressure from sound waves causes the flames to spike. The Ruben's Tube was invented in 1904 by German physicist Heinrich Rubens. While physics students learn from the experiment, most of us think "Light show!" You can see how music affects the flames in this video. If you'd like to make your own Ruben's Tube, instructions are available online.

9. Syzygryd

Syzygryd is a collaborative musical instrument made for Burning Man 2010. The three musicians use computerized controls set equidistant around a 60-foot diameter circle. They can see each other, but they are too far apart to talk -however, they can monitor each other's input on a screen. The music they play controls a sculpture in the center of the circle, "a huge metal tornado of cubes," which displays lights synchronized with the music and shoots out flames. Syzygryd can also play preprogrammed music without live musicians. Image by Flickr user Michael Broxton.

Syzygryd proved to be very popular at Burning Man, with many participants wanting to take a turn playing it. Even non-musicians can make music, as the instrument is tuned to create working chords no matter what data is fed into it, but the controllers do produce unique melodies.

10. Musical Flamethrower

As a final note, here's a musical instrument made from a collection of flamethrowers of differing lengths. I don't know who made it, but this demonstration was recorded at the Preston Riversway Festival in Preston, Lancashire, England this past July.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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