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11 Things You May Not Know About "God Bless America"

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You may know all the words, but how much do you know about the song itself?

© Jeff Spielman/Corbis

1. Yip Yap Yaphank

Written in 1918 while Berlin was an Army sergeant stationed in upstate New York, it was intended for a musical comedy revue about army life called Yip Yip Yaphank. The song's earnest tone ("It's a little sticky," was Berlin's assessment) didn't quite mesh with the show's light-hearted spirit, so Berlin squirreled it away in his songwriting trunk (an actual wooden trunk full of unused songs and half-finished ideas that Berlin opened whenever he was stuck for inspiration).

2. World War II

Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, Berlin wanted to write something to stir the country's patriotic spirit. He started a song called "Thanks, America," then abandoned it. He tried again with "Let's Talk About Liberty," but didn't get very far. Then he remembered "God Bless America," and saw that it was perfect for the occasion.

3. To the Right

Berlin made one significant change in the lyrics. As he explained in the 1940s: "The original ran, 'Stand beside here and guide her to the right with a light from above.' In 1918, the phrase 'to the right' had no political significance, as it has now. So for obvious reasons, I changed the phrase to 'Through the night with a light from above.'"

4. "When Mose With His Nose Leads the Band"

Several music historians have observed that a six-note phrase from a 1906 Jewish dialect song, "When Mose with His Nose Leads the Band," forms the opening melody of "God Bless America." A coincidence? Maybe not. When Berlin was a kid, he earned change singing comedy songs and hits of the day on the streets of New York, and he would have doubtless heard the tune. He probably just interpolated it into his own composition without realizing.

5. God Bless America Fund

After Kate Smith's rendition of the song became a sensation in 1938, royalties started pouring in. But Berlin felt conflicted about making money from a patriotic song. So he assigned the copyright of the song (along with 17 other of his lesser-known tunes) to the God Bless America Fund, which has raised millions of dollars for New York-area Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

6. "This Land Is Your Land"

One person who didn't like Berlin's anthem was folk singer Woody Guthrie. It's said that he got so fed up with hearing Kate Smith on the radio, he wrote a rebuttal in "This Land Is Your Land." In the original version of Guthrie's classic, he painted pictures of a desolate, corrupt country, ending each verse with "God blessed America for you and me."

7. The Philadelphia Flyers

In the early 1970s, Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America" was adopted by the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, after they noticed that they always seemed to win whenever the song was performed before a home game. Before Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins, Smith sang the song in person. Bruins captain Phil Esposito presented Smith with a bouquet of roses when she finished, in an attempt to jinx the good luck charm. It didn't work, and the Flyers went on to win the Cup. To this day, the song retains its mysterious influence with the team. Philadelphia's record when "God Bless America" has been played or sung in person pre-game is 94 wins, 26 losses.

8. 9/11

After the tragic events of 9/11, members of Congress assembled that evening to belt out a non-partisan version of "God Bless America." In the weeks ahead, the song became a kind of unofficial national anthem, sung at baseball playoff and World Series games, and after Broadway shows during curtain calls.

9. The Ed Sullivan Show

At 80 years old, a long-retired and reclusive Irving Berlin appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to sing a plaintive rendition of "God Bless America."

10. Land That I Love

Though it is often praised for being an all-inclusive anthem, the song was a very personal statement for Berlin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who went from rags to riches. The second line, "Land that I love," is a tip-off that this is Berlin's expression of gratitude to the country.

11. Atlantis

On July 21, 2011, "God Bless America" was played as NASA's final wake-up call for the space shuttle Atlantis, ending the thirty-year shuttle program.

For 11-11-11, we'll be posting twenty-four '11 lists' throughout the day. Check back 11 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.

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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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