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Music History #4: "Cloudbusting"

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of Bill DeMain's new(ish) column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" appears twice a month—unless we can convince Bill that twice a month is not sufficient!

“Cloudbusting”
Written and Performed by Kate Bush (1984)

The Music

http://youtu.be/pllRW9wETzw

Kate Bush has always had a way of making esoteric subject matter into compelling pop music. “Cloudbusting,” the second single from her breakout 1984 album Hounds of Love, is a great example. At its heart, the song is about a father-son relationship, but the title and historical details make it clear that the father in question is Wilhelm Reich. A controversial psychiatrist-author-inventor, Reich dreamed up a rain-making machine called a cloudbuster. The song was inspired by a memoir written by Reich’s son Peter, detailing his father’s battles with the government over his inventions, and his incarceration late in life. In the video for the song, starring Bush and Donald Sutherland (the actor couldn’t obtain a work visa on short notice, so did it for free), the cloudbuster was made by some of the same designers who worked on the Alien movies. “Cloudbusting” reached #4 on the UK charts, and has since been covered by such artists as Charlotte Martin and Gemma Hayes.

The History

In 1953, two blueberry farmers in Maine offered to pay Wilhelm Reich if he could help end the drought that was threatening their crop.

In their fields, the 56-year old Reich set up the cloudbuster. Looking like a cross between a telescope and a pipe organ, the machine could supposedly form or disperse clouds, and cause or prevent rain. The next morning, there was a downpour and the farmers’ blueberries were saved.

Skeptics said it was coincidence. Maybe so. But there’s no denying that during his sixty years, Reich presented some strange, intriguing ideas about how energy flow affects the world around us.

Born in Austria in 1897, Reich started his professional life as a psychoanalyst, and was a part of Sigmund Freud’s Vienna circle. During the 1930s, Reich wrote several books, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism, which analyzed the effect Hitler was having on Germany, and The Sexual Revolution, about the effects of government-suppressed sexuality.

Fascinated with Freud’s concept of the libido, Reich extrapolated on the idea and began to formulate a theory of a cosmic life force, sexual in nature, that drove and connected all things in the universe. The force was ever-present.

He named it orgone.

Rain, Rain Go Away

Orgone – the word was a mash-up of orgasm and ozone – became Reich’s obsession. In 1940, he built the first of what he dubbed his “orgone accumulators.” Reich believed that metal repelled orgone while organic material, such as wool, absorbed it. Using alternating layers of the two materials, he built phone-booth sized boxes. Once the boxes had accumulated a concentrated amount of orgone, he would place his patients inside, as a means of curing everything from depression to the common cold. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but many claimed to be helped by the orgone accumulators.

From human subjects, Reich turned his attention to the heavens. He believed that there was an anti-orgone, which sapped life from the atmosphere and caused droughts. He called this DOR, or Deadly Orgone Radiation. The cloudbuster was designed to manipulate that DOR, causing clouds to form and disperse. The science is sketchy, but through an assembly of hollow metal pipes and cables inserted into water, the machine supposedly created a strong energy field that drained the DOR from the atmosphere.

In the late 1940s, the FDA had already slapped an injunction on Reich, preventing him from selling his orgone accumulators. After the publicity from the cloudbusting episode on the Maine blueberry farm, government agents started watching him closely. In 1956, he was charged with contempt, for violating the ban on marketing his inventions, and went to court. With no legal representation, he suggested that the judge read his books if he wanted to understand orgone.

Reich was sentenced to two years in prison.

Come Again Some Other Day

All of Reich’s theories and inventions might be dismissed as eccentric doodling, but the government’s actions after his imprisonment make you wonder if he was onto something more significant. In the summer of 1956, FDA agents supervised the destruction of all remaining orgone accumulators. A few months later, a staggering six tons worth of Reich’s private journals, papers and books were burned in an incinerator in New York City. It’s been called one of the worst examples of censorship in U.S. history.

In 1957, Reich died in prison from heart failure.

Today, there are inventors and alternative scientists carrying on Reich’s work. If you’d like to make your own cloudbuster, here's a video and a handy resource:

http://youtu.be/dqw7z2JJ-w4

See Also: Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"; #2: "Smoke on the Water"; "Yes! We Have No Bananas"

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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