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11 Musicians Who Overcame Disabilities

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1. Ludwig van Beethoven

At age 26, the great German composer and pianist began to lose his hearing. His problems began with a severe form of tinnitus, and it's thought they may have been complicated by syphilis, lead poisoning, typhus, or possibly his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. Whatever the cause, Beethoven's deafness curbed his performing and conducting career, but didn't slow his prolific output as a composer. In the last twenty-five years of his life, when his hearing was gone, he wrote some of his best-known works, including the Ninth Symphony.

2. Django Reinhardt

Reinhardt grew up in a gypsy camp outside Paris, where he learned to play guitar and violin fluidly. In 1928, the 18-year-old musician was badly burned in a caravan fire, leaving his right leg paralyzed and left hand partially mutilated. Reinhardt learned to walk again with the help of a cane, and retaught himself how to play guitar, employing the index and middle fingers on his left hand. Inspired by Louis Armstrong, he concentrated on jazz and became one of the genre's all-time greats.

Django Reinhardt - "J'attendrai Swing"

3. Ray Charles

There was a lot of trauma in Ray Charles' childhood. At five, he witnessed the drowning death of his younger brother. Soon after, he began to gradually lose his sight. By age seven, Ray was blind (it's presumed that glaucoma was the cause). With his mother's encouragement, he took up music and learned to play piano, organ, sax, clarinet, and trumpet. By age 15, he was touring the country with dance bands. With a career that took in R&B, jazz, soul, pop, and country, he became one of the 20th century's truly legendary performers.

Ray Charles - "You Don't Know Me"

4. Hank Williams

The country star was born with spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spine that meant a lifetime of chronic back pain. But it didn't prevent Williams from writing and recording countless all-time classics like "Hey Good Lookin'" and "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry," as well as keeping a rigorous tour schedule. In 1951, after a fall during a hunting trip, Hank's pain grew unbearable. An unsuccessful surgery led to a morphine addiction and alcohol abuse, and eventually an untimely death at age 29.

5. Stevie Wonder

When Steveland Morris was born premature, he was rushed into an incubator. An excess of oxygen caused him to lose his sight. But like his hero Ray Charles, Morris turned to music, learning how to play several instruments, including drums, piano, and harmonica. Discovered by a member of Smokey Robinson's group, The Miracles, the 11-year-old was brought to Motown Records. In short order, he became Stevie Wonder and had the first of many #1 hits. The rest is history.

6. Bill Withers

Bill Withers was a chronic stutterer until the age of 28. "I was never too inclined to jump up in front of people and try to communicate verbally," he has said. But as an R&B singer-songwriter, Withers found a way to overcome his problem, turning out hits like "Use Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine."

Bill Withers - "Ain't No Sunshine"

7. Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Roland Kirk lost his eyesight at an early age, but it never affected his colorful visual sense. He was known to wear long caftans, towering hats, wraparound shades, and an arsenal of woodwind instruments around his neck, some of which he'd play simultaneously, in harmony. A true jazz original, Kirk passed away in 1977.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk - "Seasons" (in Montreux, 1972)

8. Ian Dury

As a lad growing up in London, Ian Dury was stricken with polio, and it left him with a shrunken arm and a hobbled gait. But that only made Dury more determined to leave his mark as an artist. As part of the late 1970s punk-new wave movement, Dury scored quirky hits like "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll." He continued to perform and record until his death in 2000.

9. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath

At 17, southpaw English guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers on his right hand in an accident at a sheet metal factory. Though he considered quitting music, Iommi came up with the clever solution of making caps for his damaged fingers, which he did by melting plastic bottle tops, then covering them with leather. To ease the tension on his fingers, he used lighter gauge guitar strings detuned a few steps. The rumbling heavy sound that resulted helped his band Black Sabbath define the heavy metal era in the 1970s.

You can watch the video for Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" on YouTube.

10. Rick Allen of Def Leppard

On his way to a New Year's Eve party in 1984, drummer Rick Allen got into a race with another driver. It ended with Allen losing control of the wheel, being thrown from the car, and having his left arm severed. Doctors tried to reattach the arm but couldn't. A depressed Allen thought his career was over. But with the encouragement of his Def Leppard band mates, and a retooled drum kit, he retaught himself to play, using foot pedals to fill out his percussive attack. His first album back in the band, Hysteria, sold 20 million copies. Allen, nicknamed "Thunder God" by fans, is still touring with Leppard.

Def Leppard talk about Allen's accident

11. Jeff Healey

The late blues rocker Jeff Healey lost his eyesight to cancer when he was one year old. Two years later, he was given his first guitar. Though he was shown the usual way to hold the instrument, he found it more comfortable on his lap, with his fretting hand above the neck. His unorthodox approach contributed to the amazingly fluid, soulful style that helped him sell millions of records in the mid-80s. Healey was also accomplished on trumpet and clarinet, playing old time jazz. He died at age 41 in 2008.

Jeff Healey - "See the Light"

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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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