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The Stories Behind Donna Summer's Biggest Hits

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© JONAS CUNHA/dpa/Corbis

Disco Queen Donna Summer has passed away after a battle with lung cancer at age 63. Even though her name is always automatically entwined with disco, it was a sobriquet that she was never fully comfortable with. And rightfully so; unlike so many studio-manufactured singers of that era, Summer possessed a pure, sparkling mezzo-soprano voice and felt that she performed her best on ballads and show tunes. Here are a few stories behind some of her biggest hits.

"Love to Love You Baby"

Her first international hit is remembered mainly because Summer’s vocals were reminiscent of Meg Ryan’s restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally. After touring Europe with a road company of Hair, Summer ended up in Germany where she found steady employment as a background vocalist at Musicland Studios in Munich. Producer Giorgio Moroder and his assistant Pete Bellotte were recording a jam session with some studio musicians in 1975 when suddenly a very infectious four-on-the-floor bass drum rhythm coupled with a unique hi-hat pattern emerged. The pair wrote “Love to Love You Baby” around that rhythm and hired Summer to perform the overtly sexual vocals. Summer stated at the time that she was so embarrassed at the moans she was encouraged to create, she asked for the studio lights to be dimmed so she couldn’t see anyone in the booth.

Neil Bogart, the head of Casablanca Records in the US, received a demo tape of the song and excitedly phoned Moroder a few weeks later raving about it; he’d played it at a party at his home and his coked-up guests proceeded to get naked and amorous and kept requesting that he play the song over and over. So his brainstorm was to release an extended 16 minute long version of the song that filled up one whole album side. Moroder was skeptical but complied and the Love to Love You Baby album sold 400,000 copies in six weeks.

"I Feel Love"

No one involved in creating “I Feel Love” back in 1977 had an inkling that it would be groundbreaking, that 20-plus years later it would be referred to as the first “house” song, or that the synthesized beat would spark an entire new genre of music called “electronica.” At the time he composed the melody, Giorgio Moroder simply envisioned the song as part three of a musical trilogy, a journey through time – the two songs preceding it on Summer’s I Remember Yesterday album were in the style of Motown and disco, representing the past and present of popular music respectively.

Having all the instruments created on a synthesizer for “I Feel Love” was intended to present the music of the future. A studio engineer named Robbie Wedel was an inveterate tinkerer and had discovered a way to program four different Moog synthesizers to simulate the different instruments while staying in perfect sync. Even Robert Moog himself had to ask Wedel how it was done. Donna Summer and Pete Bellotte wrote the lyrics and when Summer’s sweeping vocals were placed on top of Moroder’s ethereal, hypnotic synthesized beat and instrumentation, the result was an immediate smash. Even today professional DJs keep this 35-year-old hit on their playlists because it is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.

"Hot Stuff"

Three years before Michael Jackson had Eddie van Halen add a smokin’ guitar riff onto “Beat It,” Donna Summer combined dance music and rock and roll with her 1979 smash “Hot Stuff.” Doobie Brothers guitarist Skunk Baxter played the driving riff that helped Summer to become the first female to win a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Fresh off of a Doobies tour, Baxter was rife with ideas when he was hired for the “Hot Stuff” session. He played four guitar solos (using a used Burns guitar he’d bought for $20), eight rhythm parts, and two synthesizer parts in four hours. The resulting tune hit number one and remains the most-played song of Donna Summer’s catalog.

"She Works Hard for the Money"

Summer’s biggest hit of the 1980s was inspired by (according to her) a real-life incident. When she took a bathroom break while dining at LA’s famed celebrity bistro Chasen’s she startled the ladies’ room attendant who’d fallen asleep in her chair. The woman, Onetta Johnson, apologized for being caught napping on the job and explained to Summer that she had a full-time job during the day was just plain exhausted. Summer thought to herself “she works hard for her money” and jotted down the name “Onetta” on a piece of paper when she returned to her table. The video filmed to accompany the song garnered Summer an MTV VMA nomination, the first by an African-American woman.

The Star-Spangled Banner

No particular story behind this performance, other than to illustrate the amazing power and range of Donna Summer’s voice as she sang the National Anthem live, a capella, not miming to a pre-recorded track, just the way Nature and Francis Scott Key intended.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.