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The Day John Lennon Became a Disc Jockey

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When John Lennon visited WNEW’s Dennis Elsas in 1974, he brought along some of his favorite records to play.

© Dennis Elsas/denniselsas.com

The afternoon of September 28, 1974, was a rainy one in New York City. And if you were tuned in to WNEW-FM, you would’ve heard a whimsical take on the weather forecast, read by a familiar voice with a Liverpool accent.

“Mostly cloudy with periods,” John Lennon began, pausing a beat. “Of rain this afternoon, tonight and tomorrow. High times . . . oh no, wish it was. High this afternoon and tomorrow in the 70s, low tonight in the mid-60s. Watch out for it - that’s about my period. Monday’s outlook, fair and cool, man.”

For two hours, a relaxed and good-humored Lennon engaged in what he called his “second favorite occupation,” manning the mic and turntable along with the station’s music director, renowned DJ Dennis Elsas. For fans of Lennon and The Beatles, it was a rare treat that’s still talked about nearly forty years later.

“I knew, as a Beatle fan, that it was extraordinary,” Elsas recalls. “There was stuff there that had never happened before on the radio.”

Elsas had met Lennon at a recording session the month before, and through John’s then-girlfriend May Pang, extended an invitation to drop by the station to talk about his new album. But he was caught off guard when Pang called soon after to say, “John wants to come up. When would you like him?”

Elsas says, “She said, ‘Oh, and John wants to know if it would be okay if he brought some of his records too.’ She didn’t just mean his latest album, Walls and Bridges. He had some old 45s he wanted to play. He was coming up to be a disc jockey.”

"John just shows up."

Lennon’s visit was scheduled for a few days after the phone call. Amazingly, there was no promotion at WNEW. “First, I don’t think I ever believed he would come,” Elsas says with a chuckle. “And also, we were FM. We were much cooler, and didn’t promote things quite the way they did on AM. I imagine if I had a guarantee that John Lennon would be joining me, I would’ve promoted it.

“Also, in 1974, it’s a different world. Things aren’t quite as set up. There weren’t all these rules and regulations. There wasn’t a media machine as sophisticated as it is now. It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, and John just shows up.”

Over an entertaining two hours, Lennon spun obscure rock ‘n’ roll records like “Watch Your Step” by Bobby Parker along with newer tunes like ELO’s “Showdown” (he endorsed the band by saying, “I call them Son of Beatles”). He talked about everything from hanging out with the Rolling Stones in the ‘60s and the infamous Beatles “Butcher sleeve” to his love of Burger King Whoppers and his ongoing immigration troubles (“I think there’s certainly room for an odd Lennon or two here”). Along the way, he did station IDs and some funny commercial spots.

Getting the band back together?

And of course, there was the inevitable question about a Beatles reunion.

“I always remind people of this because they can’t comprehend what it was like,” Elsas says. “Beatle fans from 1970-1980, respected, liked, appreciated all the solo stuff. But deep down, they had one burning question: ‘When are they getting back together?’ That’s what it was all about.”

Lennon’s reply left things open. “There’s always a chance we’ll work together, because when we see each other, we tend to fall into that kind of mood. But I can’t see us touring - that touring bit, I don’t quite fancy that myself.”

Elsas met Lennon several times in the following years, and the famous broadcast was rerun, most poignantly after Lennon’s tragic death in 1980.

WNEW, a station that defined rock radio in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, struggled in the ‘90s, and in 1999 switched to an all-talk format. That was abandoned a few years later, when the station moved to "Blink FM: Music Women Love." Elsas can currently be heard on WFUV in New York and Sirius XM Satellite Radio’s Classic Vinyl station.

In his storied four-decade career in radio, that rainy September afternoon remains a highlight. “I’m so happy that it literally has stood the test of time,” Elsas says. “It was totally unscripted and off the cuff. John was just a musician up to chat about his new album, very happy, and talking to a fan who just happened to be a disc jockey with a radio show. It captured a moment in time. I’m still so pleased that I got to do it.”

You can hear highlights of the broadcast at Dennis Elsas’s website.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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