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Great Moments In Kazoo History

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Image courtesy of shibainu's Flickr stream

The kazoo is an under-appreciated instrument. To remedy that fact, fans from across America have united to celebrate National Kazoo Day (today!), a day when the lowly humming instrument can finally receive the credit it deserves. Here are a few fascinating points in the history of the great musical equalizer.

The history of the kazoo is a bit convoluted, as the actual date of its creation is up for debate. African tribes had used similar vibrating, voice-altering instruments for ceremonial purposes for hundreds of years before the instrument was introduced in America. But these animal-hide-covered instruments still don’t quite qualify as a kazoo.

The most popular origin story says that these African instruments served for the inspiration for the kazoo, which was introduced by an African-American named Alabama Vest in 1840. The original prototype was created for him by German clockmaker Thaddeus Von Clegg. Vest then exhibited the kazoo at the 1852 Georgia State Fair, calling it the “Down-South Submarine.” At the fair, Emil Sorg spotted the kazoo and worked with Vest to put together a mass-production version that wasn’t released for another half a century.

The problem with this story is that there is no actual documentation associating either Vest or Sorg with the invention of the instrument. That doesn’t mean it’s not at least partially true, but if it is, it’s impossible to say which parts are fact or fiction. It certainly seems weird that something so simple would take over fifty years to get in mass production.

The first documented invention of the kazoo occurred when Warren Herbert Frost applied for a patent in 1883. But this version was not the simple boat-shaped creation we all know and love (that's it above). Indeed, it wasn’t until 1902 before this more classic version was patented by Mr. George D. Smith.

Within a few decades of Smith’s patent, a number of new factories were in operation, pumping out metal kazoos for the masses. One of those factories is even still in business today, creating the instruments (almost) the exact same way they did when the factory opened in 1916. Kazoo fans can even visit the factory, now called The Kazoo Factory and Museum.

The kazoo quickly became popular in America, dubbed the “most democratic” instrument in the world as just about anyone can pick one up and play it right away. A number of blues, jazz, vaudeville and bluegrass acts worked the instrument into their repertoire, and a kazoo can be heard on a record for the first time on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recording of “Crazy Blues,” taped in 1921. While it's more low pitch than we're used to hearing the instrument played, you can hear the kazoo solo around the 2:00 mark.

The Mound City Blue Blowers were one of the most famous bands to incorporate kazoo into their music, achieving quite a few hits in the 1920s. Non-kazoo operating members of their band played a wax-paper-covered comb, a banjo, a suitcase played with whiskbrooms and a guitar.

The Mills Brothers, a vocal group who later went on to record over 2000 songs and release three gold records, even started out as a vaudeville act playing kazoo together. They might not have made it big with the kazoo, but they may not have made it anywhere if they didn’t start out playing the instrument together.

After a short time, though, the instrument lost its popularity among professional musicians, who recognized its serious limitations. A few decades after it achieved mainstream success, the instrument was largely restricted to amateurs and comedy acts.

Even so, it has still found its place in the fine arts community here and there. For example, Frank Loesser incorporated the instrument into the orchestra score for his 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The kazoo is played during a scene in an executive washroom, where it's supposed to sound like an electric razor that happens to shave in time to the music. If you don't want to watch the whole clip above, just skip to 3:39 to hear the kazoo.

A decade later, kazoos made their biggest mark thanks to David Bedford’s avant-garde piece With 100 Kazoos. In this 1971 performance, the audience members were provided kazoos, which allowed them to play along with the professional instrumental ensemble.

More famously, The Beatles use kazoos in their song “Lovely Rita” and Jimi Hendrix used the instrument in his song “Crosstown Traffic” to help accentuate the blown-out speaker sound he was looking for. Frank Zappa was also a fan, incorporating the sound whenever he wanted to add a comedic touch to his songs.

Barbara Stewart was one of the most famous kazooists of the last hundred years. She started out as a classically trained singer and then moved on to form a quartet called “Kazoophony.” Ms. Stewart may be the only person on earth to be considered a “kazoo virtuoso,” and appeared at such venues as the Carnegie Hall and The Tonight Show. In fact, if you want to improve your kazooing, you might want to check out Stewart’s books, The Complete How to Kazoo and How to Kazoo.

Ms. Stewart passed away in September of last year, but before she died, she did make one last contribution to the art of kazoo playing. On March 14, 2011, she led the audience of Royal Albert Hall in a performance that broke the Guinness World Record for Largest Kazoo Ensemble, with an amazing 3,910 participants. It's not the most harmonious song you'll ever hear, but for having almost 4,000 musicians, it's still pretty impressive.

While the instrument may never get the recognition of the guitar, the tuba or the violin, the kazoo is still the only instrument just about anyone can learn right off the bat.

One final note, for those who just can’t get enough kazoo history, The Kazoo Museum in Beaufort, South Carolina is a great place to visit as it features one of the largest kazoo collections in the world, along with a variety of information on the instrument’s fascinating history.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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