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Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"

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Editor's Note: This is the big debut of Bill DeMain's new column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" will appear twice a month. Try it. You'll like it!

“One Night In Bangkok”
Written by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice (1984)
Originally sung by Murray Head

The Music

With its perky chorus married to stiffly rapped verses about a chess grandmaster scoping out the city of his latest match, this was one of the strangest hits of the 1980s. Written by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and lyricist Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), it was part of Chess, a musical based on the 1972 “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Chess had a troubled run both in London’s West End and on Broadway, but “Bangkok” charted worldwide, reaching #3 in the US. The song was covered by Mike Tyson in 2011, for the soundtrack of The Hangover II.

http://youtu.be/P9mwELXPGbA

The History

It seems unfathomable now, the entire world hanging on every move of a chess game. And the players – a flamboyantly brilliant American and a quietly intense Russian – grabbing headlines like celebrities. But the match that pitted Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky was more than a game. It was twenty-five years of cold war rivalry between the Americans and the Russians brought to a head.


For the Soviets, chess was serious business. “Gymnastics of the mind,” Lenin had called it. Subsidized by the government, it was prescribed for all citizens. Its champions were national heroes. And those champions ruled the international chess world for over fifty years.


By comparison, the US was indifferent to chess. It was the game played by your nerdy brother, or by old men in the park. But then along came Bobby Fischer. In 1966, the 13-year old prodigy from Brooklyn turned heads when he became the US champion. By 1972, he’d defeated twenty international contenders and was ready to challenge Boris Spassky for the world title.

The two would meet for twenty-four games. With a win equaling one point, and a draw a half a point, the first player to twelve and a half points would be the winner. The winner would be awarded $78,125. The loser would receive $46,875. The setting for the match was Reykjavik, Iceland, a neutral zone halfway between the US and Russia.

Cold War Games

But the match almost didn’t happen. After Spassky arrived, Fischer remained in New York, making outrageous last-minute demands. On top of prize money, he wanted 30% of the gate receipts and 30% of the film and TV rights. After a week of stalled negotiations with the Icelanders, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stepped in, urging Fischer to play. Hours before the deadline for a match forfeit, Fischer arrived. In the middle of all this drama, the world got hooked on the story.

Fischer started poorly, losing the first game. He forfeited the second game, saying the noise from the TV cameras was distracting him. Two down, he seriously considering fleeing Iceland. But a member of his camp tampered with his car engine so he wouldn’t be able to drive to the airport. Spassky conceded to Fischer’s demand that game three be moved to a side room of the large exhibition hall, with no cameras. Fischer won. Games four and five were draws, then Fischer took game six. Once he settled in, he gathered momentum. By game 17, it was Fischer 10, Spassky 7.

Each game lasted an average of five hours, with the two men seated across from each other in a silence bristling with strategies and superstitions.

Prior to the match, Fischer had fillings removed from his teeth because he was sure that Soviets had devices that could interact with the metal fillings to read his brainwaves. Spassky was equally paranoid. The fruit juice he was served in Reykjavik was flown back to Moscow to be tested for drugs. And Fischer’s chair was x-rayed because Spassky believed there was a generator within it directing invisible thought-scrambling rays at him.

Checkmate

The match went on, and in game twenty-one, Spassky finally surrendered his title.

The outspoken Fischer crowed about how good it felt to “break the ego of his opponent” and tear down the propaganda of the Russian chess elite. Spassky was personally blamed for the defeat, then shunned by the government. He now lives in France, and is still active in the chess community. A month after the loss to Fischer, the Russians were grooming a new master, Anatoly Karpov, to reclaim the crown. But Fischer refused to defend his title, and was stripped of it in 1975.

He became ever more reclusive, chess’s own Howard Hughes, complete with the beard, wild rants and undisclosed locations. In 1992, he restaged the match against Spassky and won again. It was the only time in twenty years Fischer had played chess in public. The match was played in Yugoslavia, then under international embargo. Because Fischer had defied a warning by President George H.W. Bush, an arrest warrant was issued. Fischer never returned to the US, living in Budapest and the Philippines, before being granted asylum by Iceland. In 2008, he died in Reykjavik, city of his greatest triumph, at the age of 64.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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