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Music History #3: "Yes! We Have No Bananas"

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

“Yes! We Have No Bananas”
Written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn (1922)
Originally sung by Eddie Cantor

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HygopC4S5W0

The Music

The story goes that one day in 1922, songwriting duo Frank Silver and Irving Cohn were on their way to work in New York City when they stopped for a snack. At a greengrocer’s, the Greek immigrant owner told the tunesmiths in his broken English, “Yes! We have no bananas today.” The reason the grocer had no bananas? A blight in Central America had caused a shortage. The songwriters made the phrase into the title of their next song. In a Broadway revue called Make It Snappy, the tune was introduced by star Eddie Cantor, and it zoomed to number one on the Hit Parade for five straight weeks. “Yes! We Have No Bananas” went on to be recorded by hundreds of artists over the years, from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman to The Muppets.

The History

Americans love bananas. The average person eats between 20 and 30 pounds of bananas every year. And though we may consume more apples and oranges, those are often processed in juices or prepared foods. Bananas are the fruit we prefer fresh, as nature intended.

Though bananas appeared in the Americas as early as the 15th century, our love affair with them began in 1876, when they were introduced as an exotic snack at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Wrapped in tin foil and sold for a dime, they were the hit of the event.

There are over 1,000 varieties of banana, but the particular one that America preferred back in the early 20th century was called the Gros Michel, or Big Mike if your French wasn’t so great. The Big Mikes were hardy and slow to ripen, which made them ideal for export and long-distance shipping. But shortly after they were planted and cultivated in Central America, a fungus began to invade the crops.

Panama Disease, named after the country where it was first discovered, is a virulent fungus (Fusarium oxysporum) that is transmitted through soil and water. It enters through the roots, disrupts the plant’s vascular system and, basically, chokes off its water supply until the plant wilts and dies. Panama Disease can ravage an entire plantation in a matter of months, then move quickly on to the next plantation.

Banana Splits

And bananas are particularly susceptible to disease. The Big Mike, along with most bananas we eat today, can’t reproduce on its own. These bananas have no seeds and the male flowers produce no pollen. Therefore, farmers grow new plants by trimming off a fleshy bulb (the rhizome, sometimes called the sucker) from an old plant. It’s like a form of cloning. Because of this, there is no genetic variation in bananas. That's great for getting consistently perfect bananas, but bad when it comes to any sort of disease. When one banana gets sick, all of its neighbors get sick.

There may have indeed been a shortage in 1922 that sparked the hit novelty song, but really, the Big Mikes were under constant siege from Panama Disease from 1910–1960, when they were in effect wiped out. A new seedless banana variety called the Cavendish was developed in their place, and that’s the one that most of us have been enjoying for the past fifty years.

But now the Cavendish is also being attacked by a new fungal disease called Tropical Race Four. The disease has wiped out crops in Asia and Australia, and it’s believed that it’s just a matter of time before it reaches Latin America. That could mean the end of bananas as we know them. Scientists are racing to find a cure, or genetically modify the Cavendish to make it resistant to TR4.

Let’s hope they find an answer soon, before Justin Bieber covers “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

See Also: Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"; #2: "Smoke on the Water"

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
Opening Ceremony
fun
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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:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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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