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Happy 70th Birthday, Paul Simon!

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To celebrate the birthday of one of our finest pop composers, we look behind the scenes of his classic song, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

It was spring 1969. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gone. Racial tensions were erupting across the country. The war was raging in Vietnam.


What was a sensitive singer-songwriter like Paul Simon to do but dig deep for some words of solace? As he gazed out the window of his New York apartment across the East River, he sang the opening lines he’d had for over a week. “When you’re weary, feeling small . . . When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.” He especially liked how the melody to the second couplet echoed one of his favorite Bach chorales.

But after that promising start, there was only the sound of silence.

“I was stuck for a while,” Simon admitted. “Everywhere I went led to somewhere I didn’t want to be.”

What ultimately inspired him to finish his “humble little gospel song” was an album by southern gospel group The Swan Silvertones.

“Every time I came home, I put that record on, so it was in my mind,” Simon said. “I started to go to gospel chord changes, and took the melody further. Then there was one song where the lead singer was scatting, and he shouted out, ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.’"

That offhand phrase provided the lyrical key he’d been looking for.

Simon couldn’t wait to play his new song for his musical partner Art Garfunkel. With its sweeping melody and sustained high notes, it would be perfect for Garfunkel’s choirboy-pure voice. Or so he thought.

“He didn't want to sing it,” Simon said. “He couldn't hear it for himself. He felt I should have done it. And many times, I think I'm sorry I didn't do it.”

Garfunkel remembered it differently. “When Paul showed me ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ he said it was for me. And I loved the song immediately. My way of saying thank you was, ‘Are you sure? Because you sound lovely singing it, and it’s almost like you could do it . . .’ Now the famous story is that he took offense and that became a thorn between us, as if I was rejecting the song. That’s nonsense.”

Regardless of who was to deliver Simon’s ballad, the duo hustled into CBS studios in Hollywood to chisel out the finer points of the arrangement. But it soon became apparent that the two-verse song wasn’t quite finished.

Garfunkel said, “It was supposed to end with the second verse, but there seemed to be a promise of what could be if Paul were to extend the song. The whole production could open up, and we could make a record with real size.”

Reluctantly, Simon wrote a third verse. “You could clearly see it was written afterwards,” he said. The third verse may not have pleased the songwriter, but it made room for a wonderful kitchen sink arrangement that included two bass parts, vibraphone, strings and a thundering beat, made by the drummer slapping chains from his car’s snow tires across a snare drum.

That third verse also became the source of some lyrical controversy. In the late ‘60s, scouring songs for hidden meanings was every rock fan’s favorite hobby. And listeners wondered about the ambiguous line “Sail on, silver girl.”

Simon said, “There was a whole period of time where the song was supposed to be about heroin.” And silver girl was the syringe. “It’s absolutely not so,” Simon said. In fact, silver girl was a sly reference to Simon’s then-wife Peggy. “It was half a joke,” Simon explained, “because she was upset one day when she found two or three gray hairs on her head.”

Two weeks in the making, the finished record was a dynamic tour-de-force, swelling from a cathedral hush to a deeply moving finale which left all who heard it teary-eyed. It was also five minutes long. Back then, AM radio wouldn’t touch any song over three minutes. But Columbia Records honcho Clive Davis declared, “It’s the first single, first track and title of the album.”

“I knew it was an important song, but I didn’t know it was a hit,” Simon admitted. “Which was not to say I was surprised when it was a hit. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it wasn’t a hit.”

It was indeed a hit, Simon & Garfunkel’s biggest ever. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” spent six weeks at #1. It swept the Grammys in 1971, claiming six awards, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Now a standard that’s been translated into many languages, it’s been covered by hundreds of artists, from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles to Annie Lennox.

Breakup Song

Ironically, this song of fellowship contributed to Simon & Garfunkel’s breakup in 1971. As Simon said, “Many times on stage, when I'd be sitting off to the side . . . and Artie would be singing it, people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, ‘That's my song, man. Thank you very much. I wrote that.’ In the earlier days, when things were smoother I never would have thought that, but towards the end when things were strained, I did. It's not a very generous thing to think, but I did think that.”

Garfunkel said, “We’re strong in our musical opinions, and we’ve had lots of differences, but we’ve remained pretty damned gentlemanly all the way. These stories about how much we didn’t make harmony always make me laugh, because I think, ‘Isn’t the obvious thing about Simon and Garfunkel that they really made harmony very closely?’”

In the reunion tours the duo have staged in recent years, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” closes every show with a blast of that harmonic love.

“I’ve sung it six million four hundred thousand times,” Garfunkel said, “and every time, I get a little visitation of the power of a great song.”

As for Simon, who has continued to grow and experiment as one of pop’s most progressive artists, he remains slightly in awe of the song. He has said, “I know so much more than when I wrote ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ but I doubt that I'll ever write anything that has that ease and simplicity again.”

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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