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Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On

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In November 1970, Marvin Gaye brought Motown Records president Berry Gordy a new song he’d just recorded called “What’s Going On.” Gordy was thrilled. It had been more than a year since Gaye had released his last big hit, “That’s the Way Love Is,” and the singer had been going through a rough patch. During the 1960s, Gaye had achieved great success as a suave song-and-dance man. But in 1967, his singing partner, Tammi Terrell, was diagnosed with a brain tumor after collapsing into his arms on stage. After several unsuccessful surgeries, she died on March 16, 1970, and Gaye was inconsolable. On top of that, he was in trouble with the IRS, his marriage was falling apart, and his only brother was fighting in Vietnam.

Tired of churning out peppy love songs, Gaye co-wrote “What’s Going On” with the hope of taking his music in a new direction. He wanted, in his words, to “touch the souls of people everywhere.” When his boss, Berry Gordy, listened to the new recording, his excitement turned to horror. The song was more than a soulful change of pace; it was a lament depicting the sorrow and futility of the Vietnam War. Over a bed of heavy percussion, street-corner jive, and mellow strings, Gaye sang, “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” The sound and lyrics clashed with Motown’s upbeat attitude, and a startled Gordy knocked it as “the worst record [he’d] ever heard.”

Gaye didn’t flinch. He believed in his music, and he gave Gordy an ultimatum: Release the single, or he’d walk from Motown. After a four-month stalemate, Gordy agreed to put out the song, even though he was sure it would flop.

It didn’t.

“What’s Going On” was a hit, reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart. The success opened the door for Gaye to make a full concept album. Now regularly hailed as one of the greatest records ever made, What’s Going On forged new frontiers by folding Latin rhythms, complex vocal harmonies, and politically charged lyrics into long, unorthodox songs. But more importantly, it fulfilled Gaye’s aim to touch people’s souls.

Heavenly Voice

Marvin Gaye always believed his voice was meant to serve a higher purpose. When he was 11 years old, he had recurring dreams about singing for “fields of humanity.” Just what kind of songs he’d be singing was the question. The son of a fiery Pentecostal preacher, Gaye was raised on gospel, but he loved secular music. His father, however, believed that jazz and the blues were the devil’s music, and he wouldn’t allow it in his house. This argument was a source of endless tension, and in 1958, at age 19, Gaye left home to tour with a doo-wop group called The Moonglows. In response, his father disowned him.

After two years on the road, Gaye landed in Detroit, where he signed a recording contract with Motown Records. Before long, he was tangling with another hot-headed father figure, Motown founder Berry Gordy. A former autoworker, Gordy modeled his company on the Ford assembly line. Gordy believed that to create a superstar, all you needed were well-written songs, fashionable clothes, dance lessons, and coaching in etiquette. He meticulously followed this formula, hand-picking everything from the label’s songwriters to its secretaries. By the late 1960s, Gordy’s groundbreaking technique—embodied by artists such as Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, and The Supremes—had turned Motown into a multimillion-dollar empire.

Marvin Gaye helped build that empire, as a solo artist and as part of a duo with Tammi Terrell. But Gordy’s dogmatic approach to making music rankled Gaye. Gordy believed that his artists should adhere to their specific roles, like cogs in a machine, while Gaye wanted to stretch and expand. He wanted to experiment with new styles of songwriting and produce his own records. When Gordy insisted that he remain the tuxedo-clad R&B singer the world knew and loved, Gaye felt locked in a creative stranglehold.

Things Ain’t What They Used to Be

Even after “What’s Going On” became Motown’s fastest-selling single, Gordy had doubts about releasing an entire album of message songs. So he made a bet with the singer: If Gaye could finish his album in 30 days, Motown would release it, and Gaye would gain creative control of his career. If he couldn’t, Gaye would put the tux back on and start singing love songs again.

Gaye accepted the wager. With the clock ticking, he assembled a ragtag creative team. Rather than rely on Motown’s slickest songwriters, he chose underdogs, even co-writing tracks with the company’s elevator operator, a closet lyricist.

Gaye also brought a fresh approach to the protest music of the time. Rather than abstractly discussing unemployment and drug abuse, he made the issues feel intimate and personal by singing about them in the first-person. In “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” he sings about being out of work, and in “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky),” he sings about being addicted to heroin. In addition to providing social criticism, many of the songs reflect Gaye’s religious upbringing. “God is Love” offers the possibility of forgiveness and salvation, while “Save the Children” is a sermon asking listeners to protect the future. At the time, the album’s mixture of gospel and pop was unheard of.

In the studio, the session musicians—longtime victims of Gordy’s controlling ways—embraced Gaye’s to-hell-with-the-company approach. As the singer plied them with food and marijuana, they played freely, building grooves around Gaye’s melodies. The finished album sounded like nothing Motown had ever released.

It didn’t look like anything it’d ever released, either. Instead of featuring Gaye decked out in formal wear, the cover showed his scruffy face staring pensively into the distance. Also, for the first time ever, a Motown album contained printed lyrics—assuring Gaye’s messages would be clear.

Father, Father

When What’s Going On hit the streets on May 21, 1971, critics raved. Billboard named Marvin Gaye the “Trendsetter of the Year,” and Time called his album a “vast, melodically deft symphonic pop suite.” Even Reverend Jesse Jackson chimed in, saying, “Marvin is as much a minister as any man in the pulpit.” In the decades since, the album has continued to widen the lyrical and musical scope of R&B, inspiring artists from Stevie Wonder to Lauryn Hill to Kanye West.

Sadly, although the record brought solace and uplift to millions, it was only a brief respite in Gaye’s troubled life. The last 13 years of his life were a mess of cocaine, broken relationships, and money problems. He enjoyed a short-lived comeback in 1982 with the Grammy-winning hit “Sexual Healing,” but physical and mental issues soon forced him to retreat back to his parents’ home. On April 1, 1984, he got into a heated argument with his father, who shot him twice in the chest. Marvin Gaye died instantly, one day shy of his 45th birthday.

While much of Gaye’s music continues to reach new generations of listeners, What’s Going On remains his most lasting achievement—the moment when he fused social consciousness with soul.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.