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11 Songs Inspired by Literature

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Devo and Thomas Pynchon. Mick Jagger and Charles Baudelaire. Though they seem like rather unlikely pairings, many great rock songs have been the result of a lyricist finding inspiration in the pages of a book. These are just the tip of the iceberg - be sure to share your favorite literary-inspired lyrics in the comments.

1. The Song: “Pigs (Three Different Ones)," Pink Floyd.
The Novel: Animal Farm, George Orwell.

Pink Floyd felt so strongly about Orwell’s barnyard take on revolution that they made a mascot from the book’s dictator pigs. The first incarnation of the famous Pink Floyd pigs popped up in 1976 for the photoshoot for 1977’s Animals album, which is based loosely around Animal Farm themes. "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" is about people in society with wealth and power.

2. The Song: “My Antonia,” Emmylou Harris.
The Novel: My Antonia, Willa Cather.

It's somehow not surprising that Emmylou Harris is a fan of Willa Cather. Written from the perspective of Jim, the man who loved Cather’s title character in My Antonia, the song was actually composed several years prior to its release on the 2000 album Red Dirt Girl. Harris hung on to it for a while, not sure what she wanted to do with it since she had written it from a man’s perspective.

“One day I got the idea to make it a conversation and the song just seemed to write itself. Well, then I had to pick a 'leading man.' I had just done a show with Dave Matthews and I loved the way we sounded together. And he did a simply beautiful job.”

3. The Song: “Whip It,” Devo
The Novel: Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon.

According to Devo singer/bassist/synthesizer player Jerry Casale:

"'Whip It,' like many Devo songs, had a long gestation, a long process. The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon's parodies in his book Gravity's Rainbow. He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and 'You're #1, there's nobody else like you' kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, 'I'd like to do one like Thomas Pynchon,' so I wrote down 'Whip It' one night."

4. The Song: “Wuthering Heights,” Kate Bush.
The Novel: Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte.

An 18-year-old Kate Bush was inspired to write her breakout song after seeing just 10 minutes of Wuthering Heights on TV in 1977.

“I am sure one of the reasons it stuck so heavily in my mind was because of the spirit of Cathy, and as a child I was called Cathy. It later changed to Kate. It was just a matter of exaggerating all my bad areas, because she's a really vile person, she's just so headstrong and passionate and... crazy, you know? And it was fun to do, and it took - a night and a half?”

5. The Song: “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Bruce Springsteen.
The Novel: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.

Technically, Springsteen was inspired by John Ford’s big-screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression journey. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is a 1990s version of The Grapes of Wrath, meant to serve as a reminder that modern times are just as difficult for some. Rage Against the Machine covered the song in 1997.

6. The Song: “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones
The Novel: The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov.

In 1968, Mick Jagger’s then-girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, passed along a little book she thought he might enjoy. Jagger ended up writing “Sympathy for the Devil” after reading the novel, which starts when Satan, disguised as a professor, walks up and introduces himself to a pair of men discussing Jesus.

Mick later suggested that some of the lyrics may have been inspired by the works of Charles Baudelaire as well, which makes “Sympathy” the result of a pretty well-read rock star.

7. The Song: “Holden Caulfield,” Guns N' Roses.
The Novel: The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger.

The much-awaited 2008 album Chinese Democracy contained a song called “The Catcher in the Rye” after the J.D. Salinger classic, but it’s surmised that the song is really about another culture-changing event that Holden Caulfield was involved in: the assassination of John Lennon in 1980. Lennon’s murderer was carrying a copy of the book when he pulled the trigger.

8. The Song: “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” Cream
The Novel: The Odyssey, Homer.

Even Eric Clapton can’t resist the Sirens from The Odyssey; this classic Cream song references the mythological enticing beauties (Clapton sure knew his share of those). Though it’s Clapton singing, the lyrics were written by Martin Sharp, who had just returned from vacation in Ibiza and was inspired by all of the exotic scenery - beaches and women alike, presumably.

9. The Song: “Breathe,” U2
The Novel: Ulysses, James Joyce.

Speaking of The Odyssey, it’s no surprise that The Edge and Bono would want to pay homage to their fellow Irishman James Joyce by setting “Breathe” on June 16. That’s the day Leopold Bloom embarks upon throughout the pages of Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s also the day that Joyce fans everywhere honor his work by celebrating Bloomsday.

10. The Song: “Ramble On,” Led Zeppelin
The Novel: Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.

If you’ve ever listened to the lyrics of “Ramble On,” this is not going to come as a surprise to you. For example:

“'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up
And slipped away with her.”

For years I'd only ever paid attention to the “Ramble On” chorus, so this was a shock.

11. The Song: “Scentless Apprentice,” Nirvana
The Novel: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind.

Though this horror book never made it to the bestseller lists, it was a modest hit thanks in part to Kurt Cobain, who frequently mentioned that it was one of his favorite reads. He liked it so much, in fact, he wrote a song about it and put it on the 1993 In Utero album. The book is about a man who kills young women and captures their scents in order to make the perfect perfume. I won’t spoil the ending for you - and neither does “Scentless Apprentice.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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