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12 Violinists Known for Something Else

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The violin is considered by many to be the thinking man’s instrument, famously played by the likes of Albert Einstein and Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional genius Sherlock Holmes. Here are 12 other celebrities who fiddled around in their spare time:

1. Charlie Chaplin played the violin (and the cello) in a unique way: backwards – specially strung to be fretted with the right hand and bowed by the left. As the story goes, renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz once unwittingly picked up Chaplin’s violin to do a little showing off, only to screech out several discordant notes. Chaplin calmly took the violin, and whipped out some Bach. He then explained: “I am...made inside out and upside down. When I turn my back on you in the screen, you are looking at something as expressive as a face. I am back, foremost.” He can be seen but not heard playing the violin in The Vagabond, one of his earliest silent movies, and Limelight, in which he and “pianist” Buster Keaton destroy one another’s instruments before any actual music occurs.

[Viewer beware: some violins may have been injured in the filming of this routine.]

2. Larry Fine (aka Louis Fienberg, aka Larry of the Three Stooges) began playing the violin as a child -- therapy for a bad chemical burn on his arm.

The kid had chops, and was soon performing on local stages and studying to become a concert musician. Unable to keep from clowning around, Larry eventually incorporated his fiddle into a stand-up routine, riffing on it in between jokes in a style later made famous by Henny Youngman. Though he’s better known for prat-falls, Larry showcases his virtuosity in flicks like Punch Drunks and The Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze.

3. Ana Gasteyer may be best known as one of the “NPR ladies” on Saturday Night Live, but she’s also a classically trained violinist. At age ten, the self-proclaimed “violin nerd” landed a gig playing for Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during a little break at Camp David Accords. No pressure.

4. Henri Rousseau was a groundbreaking post-impressionist painter underappreciated in his lifetime. To his friends, he was also an underappreciated violinist. To supplement his meager income as a toll-taker, Rousseau busked on the street and taught violin lessons around Paris. In the evening, he composed waltzes and played at soirees held by the notorious Société des Artistes Indépendants. Legend has it that he was once so overtaken by music (and/or wine) that he continued sawing away for hours, even as hot candle wax dripped continually upon his head.

5. Werner Klemperer (aka Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes) grew up in a musical household, and trained classically on the violin from an early age. His father, Otto Klemperer, was one of Germany’s most respected symphony maestros, and became the head conductor at the LA Philharmonic after the Klemperers fled Hitler’s Europe in 1935 (a somewhat ironic history, considering that the Jr. Klemperer found fame playing a German kommendant at a WWII POW camp.) Also ironic: Klemperer’s Klink played the violin terribly in a 1971 episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Klemperer downplayed his talent, performing in symphonies primarily as a...narrator? Is that still a thing?

6 and 7. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, both students at the College of William and Mary, became friends while doing a violin duet one evening at a fancy Christmas party. While history tells us that they both practiced obsessively, their respective talent remains questionable: One contemporary supposedly called Patrick Henry “the worst fiddler in the colonies, excepting Thomas Jefferson.” This criticism could be explained by the fact that although Jefferson was fond of referring to his instrument as the more colloquial “fiddle,” he probably stuck to a stately classical repertoire, and had little experience with proper, folksie fiddling. Patrick Henry, for his part, seemed to play more for his own enjoyment; visitors claimed he would play while lying on the floor as his caterwauling children crawled all over him.

8. Ben Franklin did a little of everything. Should the violin be any surprise? Not one to be left out of the fashionable fiddle fad among intellectuals at the time, Franklin — who taught himself the instrument, as well as the harp and guitar — penned a little music for a string quartet, and invented something called the “glass harmonica,” which is kind of a fancy version of rubbing the rim of a wine glass with your finger.

9. Woodrow Wilson grew up playing the violin, and probably played into his adulthood. Rumors of his violin skills may have been over-emphasized in the internet age, however, largely because the legitimately famous violinist Ruggiero Ricci once went by the more American-sounding pseudonym “Woodrow Wilson Rich.” Nixon played the violin as a boy, too, but you don’t hear violinists bragging about that one so much.

10. John Tyler was, you know, the tenth president of the United States. He may not be the most famous president, but he was one of the most musical. He relished writing songs and jamming with his family so much that they began performing as a band after his presidency. And unrelated to his musical talents — his grandsons are still alive!

11. Louis Farrakhan is best know as the long-time leader of the Nation of Islam, but his love for the violin has endured since childhood. Just a month after Farrakhan (then Louis X) joined the Nation of Islam, Minister Malcolm X preached for musicians to choose between show biz and the Temple. Farrakhan chose the latter, and gave up the violin for over 40 years. In 1993, he returned to the stage, in a somewhat controversial performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (probably the only “controversial” Violin Concerto ever). The New York Times reviewed Farrakhan’s playing as “wide, deep, and full of the energy that makes the violin gleam.”

12. Marlene Dietrich spent her early years training to be a concert violinist, before a painful wrist problem and a pesky sex appeal forced her into Hollywood stardom. Her first performance was at a Mexican-themed Red Cross pageant, for which sixteen-year-old Marlene (who then preferred the name “Paul”) wore a boy’s suit and a sombrero. She later got a job accompanying silent movies, until she was fired – allegedly because her legs were too distracting for her fellow musicians. Forced to go into acting, she forever called the violin “the symbol of my broken dream.”

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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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