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Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" Was Written by Shel Silverstein

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© Chris Hoffmann/dpa/Corbis / © Jeff Albertson/CORBIS

In February 1969, Johnny Cash had a party at his house in Hendersonville, TN. As the evening went on, the party turned into a guitar pull, with some of Johnny's friends trying out their latest songs. "Bob Dylan sang 'Lay Lady Lay,'" recalled Cash. "Kris Kristofferson sang 'Me and Bobby McGee.' Joni Mitchell sang 'Both Sides Now.' Graham Nash sang 'Marrakesh Express.' And Shel Silverstein sang 'A Boy Named Sue.'"

Cash loved Silverstein's tune and asked him to write down the words. He might not have realized it then, but the song was about to change his life. He said, "We were leaving the next day to go to California and June said, 'Take the words to 'A Boy Named Sue' to California. You'll want to record that at San Quentin.' I said, 'I don't have time to learn that song before the show.' And she said, 'Well, take them anyway.'"

Cash's recorded performance before the inmates at San Quentin prison was a follow-up to the previous year's hit album, At Folsom Prison. (Cash had been playing shows at prisons since 1957.) For San Quentin, Cash rehearsed a set of material that included past hits such as "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire." But his wife June encouraged him to add Silverstein's humorous song to his set.

Cash said, "I'd only sung it the first time the night before and I read it off as I sang it. I still didn't know the words. As a last resort, I pulled those lyrics out and laid them on the music stand, and when it came time that I thought I was brave enough, I did the song."

Despite reading the lyrics, Cash gave the song his all, investing it with an actor's bravado. There's also a spontaneity and joy about the performance, with Cash obviously amused by Silverstein's clever lyrics. And the inmates loved it, whooping and laughing along, especially when Cash shouted the lines, "My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you're gonna die!" From the ovation at the song's end, Cash suspected he might have a hit on his hands.

Columbia Records agreed, releasing "A Boy Named Sue" as a single. But they had to clean up a few lines before country radio would play it. With "son-of-a-bitch" and "damn" bleeped out of the song, it topped the country charts for five weeks straight, then soared to #2 on the pop charts, becoming Cash's biggest-selling single ever and one of his signature tunes.

And what of the man behind the hit? Shel Silverstein, the creator of classic children's books Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree and a cartoonist for Playboy, was also a songwriter who penned hits for Dr. Hook and Bobby Bare. Silverstein said the inspiration for "A Boy Named Sue" came from his friend, radio announcer and humorist Jean Shepherd, who'd been teased as a kid because of his feminine first name. "I fist-fought my way through every grade in school," Shepherd later said.

"Sue" earned Silverstein a Grammy for Best Country Song, and in 1970, he appeared on The Johnny Cash Show to duet with the Man in Black on the hit:

And in 1978, Silverstein wrote and recorded a sequel, "The Father of a Boy Named Sue," which retold the story from the dad's point of view.

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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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