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Music History #6: "American Pie"

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"American Pie”
Written and performed by Don McLean (1971)

The Music

“I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside the day the music died”

The phrase “The day the music died” is familiar to us today as shorthand for the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson. But when Don McLean coined it in his epic pop song, it was new. So was the idea of nostalgia for the musical past as subject matter for a song.

“Buddy Holly didn’t matter to anyone when I wrote the song,” McLean told me in 1995. “He was long dead and forgotten.” McLean saw Holly’s death as a means to frame his ideas about what had happened to America during the 1960s. Rather than spelling it out clearly, McLean laced his lyric with cryptic, evocative imagery. “I was trying to create a rock ‘n’ roll dream sequence,” he said. “But it was more than rock ‘n’ roll. I was trying to create this American song which connected the parts of America that mattered to me, starting with Buddy Holly.”

“American Pie” was a #1 hit for four weeks during early 1972. At eight and a half minutes, it also ranks as one of the longest singles of the rock era (second to Guns ‘N Roses “November Rain”). It has since been covered by everyone from Weird Al Yankovic to Madonna.

Here’s McLean performing it live in 1972:

http://youtu.be/5QUYvRaQ4XM

The History

Buddy Holly didn’t want to be part of the Winter Dance Party. The prospect of a 24-day package tour of one-nighters through the Midwest wasn’t exactly his idea of a great career move. Especially in January. But he needed the money.

Though Holly had scored seven Top 40 hits since his major label debut eighteen months earlier, like many early rock ‘n’ rollers, he had also made some bad business decisions. Namely, allowing producer Norman Petty to have control over both his publishing and management. After a disagreement about musical direction, Petty had withheld Holly’s royalties (they were paid into an account that only Petty had access to). Petty had also convinced Holly’s backing band The Crickets – drummer Jerry Allison and bassist Joe B. Mauldin – to split with their leader. Holly’s first single without Petty and The Crickets faltered.

On top of all this, Holly’s new wife Maria Elena was a few weeks pregnant with their first child. If the Winter Dance Party wasn’t the bright future he was hoping for, at least it was a paying gig, and a stopgap while his lawyer sorted out the mess with Petty.

Holly was the tour’s headliner. Sharing the bill were J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens and Dion & The Belmonts. The tour began on January 23rd in Milwaukee.

Cold Comfort
The winter of 1959 was a brutal one. Record-setting sub-zero temperatures, snow and ice paralyzed the Midwest. The hastily-organized itinerary had the musicians zigzagging three states, with up to 400 miles between dates. They traveled in a succession of broken-down, drafty buses, with heaters that kept freezing up.

Remember, these were nationally-known stars. Knowing how bands travel today, in plush tour buses with full kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping bunks, the conditions that Holly and company endured are almost unthinkable.

By the end of the first week, morale was low and tempers were growing short. The Big Bopper came down with a bad chest cold, and Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalized with frostbitten feet (the new Crickets also included guitarist Tommy Allsup and, on bass, future country star Waylon Jennings). As they navigated the icy roads, the tired musicians often huddled together under blankets, drinking whiskey to stay warm. They’d catch a few hours of sleep at the local hotels, play their show, then it was back on the bus, into the frozen darkness.

Despite the weather, the shows went pretty well. Local radio stations helped out with ticket and record giveaways. And at a succession of ballrooms, the bands played their hits for enthusiastic teenage rock ‘n’ roll fans. The average crowd size was 1,200.

But the brief glory on stage didn’t make up for all the bone-chilling travel. When they’d reached Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly had decided to charter a small plane for himself and his band to fly ahead to their next show in Minnesota.

Flipping A Coin
Holly had grown weary of the bus rides, and wanted a chance to do laundry and get a good eight hours of sleep at a hotel. When the other performers found out, they tried to angle their way on the plane.

Ritchie Valens badgered Tommy Allsup for his seat. Finally, they flipped a coin. Valens won.

Waylon Jennings willingly gave up his seat to Richardson, whose cold had worsened. When Holly found out, he teased his friend.

“So you’re not going on that plane with me tonight, huh?”

When Jennings said no, Holly replied, “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up again.”

Jennings said, “Well, hell, I hope your old plane crashes.”

For the rest of his life, Jennings would be haunted by the exchange, and by the moment he surrendered his seat to Richardson.

The Day The Music Died
After the show in Clear Lake, Holly, Richardson and Valens were driven to Mason City Airport, where their chartered aircraft was waiting. It was a Beechcraft Bonanza, a four-seater. The pilot was Roger Peterson. The 21-year old had had his private plane license for four years and had just qualified for a commercial pilot’s license. He’d flown in wintry weather before.

At about 12:50 am on February 3rd, the small plane took off from Mason City Airport. The wind roared around it. The swirling snow made visibility near impossible. A few minutes into the flight, the plane dipped. The wing hit the ground and was torn from the fuselage. The plane flipped over and crashed in a corn field. All four passengers were killed.

Buddy Holly was 22. Ritchie Valens was 17. J.P. Richardson was 28.

A song memorializing the crash, “Three Stars,” was released shortly after, first by Ruby Wright, then Eddie Cochran, another early rock ‘n’ roller who died tragically young in a car crash.

Meanwhile, in New Rochelle, New York, a thirteen-year old paperboy named Don McLean stared at the headline about Buddy Holly, his favorite singer, and the seed was planted for a future classic song.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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