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Remembering Levon Helm

Yesterday Levon Helm, the multi-instrumentalist best known as the singer and drummer for The Band, died after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 71.

Helm was a southern gentleman, owner of one of rock and roll’s all-time great beards, easily the genre’s best singing drummer and, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce wrote, the “real voice of America”:

“I wanted to thank him for the way he sang, and for the throb of his drums, and for the way he helped point the way home for all of us who thought we'd lost our country. He brought us back to what was really important: the fugitive grace of a young democracy, that America, for all its flaws and shortcomings, for all its loss of faith in itself and its stubborn self-delusions, was a country that was meant to rock.”

He’ll be sorely missed, but his drums will never fall silent. Here are just few of the things he’ll be remembered for.

“Up on Cripple Creek”
Helm and Band guitarist Robbie Robertson pick apart the little bits of genius that make up this song - from the half-time “danceable” beat and funky clavinet, to the “merry go round music” keyboards.

“The Weight”
I don’t suppose I could get away with not including this. While Robertson wrote the song, it looms large in the legacy of every Band member as its made its way onto countless “best/most influential rock songs” lists and graduated from hit, to signature song to modern standard.

“Short Fat Fanny”

From the early, early days of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Helm performs Larry Williams’ s hit song with the Max Weinberg 7 and talks with Conan about his early career, his switch to drums, The Band and shooting guns with Willie Nelson.

“Poor Old Dirt Farmer”

Dirt Farmer was Helm’s first solo studio release in 25 years. It’s steeped in the flavors of America’s musical heartland and Cajun and Appalachian folk, country, blues and bluegrass all crop up, if you’ll excuse the pun. This lament for the men and women that feed America, with its high, lonesome fiddle and accordion, sounds like funeral zydeco.

“Got Me A Woman”

Hands down, my favorite Helm song. It’s a quirky little country-fried love song about the woman who keeps his tractor clean.

“Atlantic City”

There are not many situations where I’ll admit my beloved Bruce Springsteen has been outdone, but Helm’s renditions of “Atlantic City,” either with the The Band or his solo-era backing bands, are my favorite versions of the tune. I especially love the horns and Garth Hudson’s accordion.

Two other members of The Band are also gone, but not forgotten. Bassist Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999 and pianist Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986. Below are the two men’s best known turns at the mic on Band tunes and two songs inspired by them.

“Stage Fright”

“The Shape I’m In”

The Counting Crows - “Richard Manuel is Dead”

The Drive-By Truckers - Danko/Manuel

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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