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Music History #2: "Smoke on the Water"

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of Bill DeMain's new column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" will appear twice a month.

“Smoke on the Water”
Written by Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, Ian Paice (1972)
Originally performed by Deep Purple

The Music

It’s the riff that will not die. The heavy metal version of “Chopsticks.” Somewhere at this very moment, in a suburban garage or music store, there’s a kid with an electric guitar plonking out those opening notes – “Dun-dun-duuun . . .” The introduction to “Smoke on the Water” is so famous that we often forget there’s a song attached to it.

The British rock group Deep Purple wrote their signature tune after surviving a casino fire in Switzerland. Featured on their 1972 Machine Head album, it climbed to #4 on the charts. Since then, it has taken on a life of its own. It’s heard at sporting events and on Playstation games. It’s been in TV commercials, two episodes of The Simpsons and many movies, including School of Rock. It’s also been at the center of a headbanging world’s record. In 2007, in Germany, 1,802 guitarists joined together in a metal ensemble to play the opening riff.

Here’s the classic lineup of Deep Purple performing the song in 1973:

http://youtu.be/j2hbU7na1pw

And a clip of the previous world record holders, an ensemble of 1,683 guitarists playing the riff:

http://youtu.be/5Un37CiAgC0

The History

On December 4, 1971, the five members of Deep Purple were in the audience in the ballroom of Switzerland’s Montreux Casino, watching a concert by Frank Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention.

During the encore, in the middle of a song called “King Kong,” the trouble started. As Zappa recalled, “Somebody in the audience had a bottle rocket or a Roman candle and fired it into the ceiling, at which point the rattan covering started to burn.”

Deep Purple would immortalize this audience member as “some stupid with a flare gun.” Whatever the incendiary source, blobs of fire ricocheted around and a canopy hanging from the balcony ignited. Flames spread quickly. The audience of 2,000 panicked.

Zappa said, “Since more kids were outside, trying to get in, the organizers had cleverly chained the exit doors shut. When the fire began, the audience was left with two ways out: through the front door, which was pretty small, or through a plate-glass window off to the side of the stage.”

“It died with an awful sound”

As Zappa urged everyone to calm down, the balcony collapsed. The band’s roadies smashed the plate-glass window and started helping fans to safety. Others hurried out through the venue’s front door. The band escaped through an underground tunnel that went from behind the stage through the parking garage.

Zappa said, “A few minutes later the heating system in the building exploded, and some people were blown through the window. Fortunately, nobody was killed and there were only a few minor injuries. However, the entire building, about $13,000,000 worth, burned to the ground, and we lost all our equipment.”

The Montreux Casino was indeed an expensive, elegant structure. It was originally built in 1881, and through the first half of the 20th century, it hosted some of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, with conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski. In 1967, the Casino became the venue for the Montreux Jazz Festival, which featured such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans and Nina Simone. The Casino’s promoter was Claude Nobs, who was also mentioned in the Deep Purple song, as the “Funky Claude” who helped some of the fans escape the burning venue. The Montreux Casino was rebuilt, and reopened in 1975. (You can see original Super 8 video of the fire on the Montreux Music site.)

Deep Purple fled to their nearby hotel, and watched firefighters struggle with the blaze. As it waned, they looked out across Lake Geneva and saw that it was covered with a layer of smoke. And that was the inspiration for the song.

Frank Zappa’s bad luck continued. A week later, during a London concert, he was punched on stage by a drunk fan. Zappa toppled into the orchestra pit and broke his leg and a rib.

See Also: Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"

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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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