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All Together Now: Civil Rights and The Beatles' First American Tour

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© Bettmann/CORBIS

“We will not appear unless Negroes are allowed to sit anywhere,” The Beatles said in a press statement on September 6, 1964. Halfway through a 23-city U.S. tour, the group was looking ahead to their date at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, where they’d heard that blacks were confined to the balconies or upper tiers at public events such as concerts.

The next day, The Florida Times-Union ran a disparaging editorial entitled “Beatlemania Is A Mark Of A Frenetic Era.” The group was called “a passing fad, perfectly timed and fitted to the mores, morals and ideals of a fast-paced, troubled time.” Their sound was described as “high pitched monotone.” There was no mention of segregation, but it was clear that the paper hardly considered these “hirsute scourges of Liverpool” intelligent enough to comment on social issues.

“The Beatles were interlopers in the eyes of most people,” says Kitty Oliver, a Jacksonville native who was one of a handful of black teenage fans who attended their Gator Bowl concert. “They were nobodies, and strange on top of that. Especially in the south, in a place like Jacksonville, where tension was already high about differences. Whether you were coming from another state to demonstrate civil rights, or coming from another country to undermine our youth – it was equally threatening.”

The Fab Four’s outspokenness certainly stood in sharp contrast to the behavior of most American pop stars, who were coached to stick to safe topics like favorite desserts and most embarrassing personal habits.

“At that time, no one that I knew of really took the initiative to address any kind of social issues,” says Mark Lindsay, lead singer of Paul Revere & The Raiders. “I can see The Beatles coming over here and being assailed by this weird, unfair policy of segregation. They were not just good musicians. They had intellect. They spoke up.”

With Great Power...

“They were really the first group to have the power to do that,” agrees singer Brian Hyland, whose big hit was “Sealed With a Kiss.” “They used that platform really well. They could’ve just let it ride and not said anything about the Jacksonville show. It took a lot of courage.”

Both of these artists were part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, an interracial tour crossing paths with The Beatles in an America that was churning with racial tensions. Protesters were marching in northern cities from Seattle to Baltimore demanding better jobs, schooling and housing for blacks. In the south, the situation was more desperate. Blacks were still denied a place at a lunch counter or a seat in the front of a city bus. In July, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

But old prejudices die hard. In the weeks after, riots broke out in Harlem and Rochester. Black churches, homes and businesses were burned in Mississippi. And there were countless incidences of violence throughout southern cities, including Jacksonville.

In February 1964 – the same month The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan - a bomb exploded in the home of a black family whose son had integrated into a white school. A month later, rioting broke out.

Oliver recalls, “I was a junior in high school, and there was a very tense situation downtown that summer. I got involved in demonstrations and picketing. There wasn’t any violence that I recall, but people were yelling at us.”

When The Beatles arrived, the city had settled down, but was still spinning its wheels in desegregation efforts. Only 60 of the 30,000 black students in Duval County attended integrated schools.

Live at the Gator Bowl

Opening the concert that Friday night was the Exciters, a black R & B vocal quartet from New York, best known for their hit “Tell Him.” Though WAPE - “The Big Ape” - the local radio station promoting the concert, chose the support act, The Beatles were most likely pleased.

Oliver recalls, “Where I sat, there were two other black kids. I ran into them accidentally as I found my seat. I went alone. No school friends would go. I remember that I sat in the high-up least expensive seats, because that is all my family could afford. Yes, it was scary in the sense that I didn't know what to expect. You develop a strong antenna for danger, watchful of any sudden movements or shift of mood in a crowd, and, at the same time, a shield that allows you to look straight ahead and seem impervious.”

Once The Beatles started to play, Oliver forgot about any possible danger. “There were a lot of girls screaming, and I was screaming too,” she says with a laugh. “And singing all the lyrics to the songs. I loved The Beatles, and had seen Hard Day’s Night seven times. I even won one of those short “_______is my favorite Beatle” contests and my name was called on the radio announcing that I had won a free signed album. I kept it for decades.”

And The Beatles’ human rights crusading continued for decades, until the group’s end and right on through their solo careers. Paul McCartney summed up their position when he told a reporter in 1966, "We weren't into prejudice. We were always very keen on mixed-race audiences. With that being our attitude, shared by all the group, we never wanted to play South Africa or any places where blacks would be separated. It wasn't out of any goody-goody thing; we just thought, 'Why should you separate black people from white? That's stupid, isn't it?'"

“I think The Beatles did a lot in terms of bridging cultures, and that was something very new at that time,” says Oliver, who now lives in Ft. Lauderdale, where she’s an oral historian and author. “They came from another country and another culture, so that made them intriguing to many black people. These people were different and they were singing some R & B songs that were familiar to us. It was the cross-cultural aspect that went beyond racial issues that made them so important. They gave us a new way of dialoguing at a time when we were really at odds with each other.”

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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