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RIP Dave Brubeck: 5 Things You Might Not Know About the Jazz Legend

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Legendary jazz musician Dave Brubeck passed away this morning in Connecticut, one day short of his 92nd birthday. Here are five things you might not have known about the Kennedy Center Honoree, jazz standards composer, and leader of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

1. His College Degree Came With a Catch

Brubeck enrolled at what's now University of the Pacific in 1938 with plans to study veterinary medicine. He eventually switched his major to music, though, and he tore through his classes until he had to enroll in keyboard instruction his senior year. At that point, Brubeck had to admit to his professor that he couldn't read a single note of music, even though he played jazz as well as anyone.

Brubeck's professor and dean informed him that they couldn't let a student graduate with a music degree if he couldn't read music. Brubeck shrugged off their worries by saying he didn't care about reading music; he just wanted to play jazz. Brubeck's other teachers protested that he was a very gifted musician even if he couldn't read music, so the dean cut a deal with the jazz man: Brubeck could graduate, but only if he promised never to teach music and embarrass the school by revealing his shortcoming. Brubeck later laughingly told the website JazzWax, "I kept that promise ever since, even when I was starving." He did learn to read music later in life.

2. He Narrowly Avoided the Battle of the Bulge

Brubeck served under General George Patton during World War II, and he nearly fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Before his unit was sent to the front lines, though, Brubeck and his fellow soldiers got a visit from a Red Cross show. The show needed volunteer pianists, and Brubeck signed up. He tickled the keys so dazzlingly that the Army pulled him out of his unit so he could form a jazz band to entertain the troops. He spent the rest of the war touring various camps with no fewer than three liberated pianos and an integrated band known as the Wolfpack.

3. He Was a Jazzy Diplomat

From the 1950s on, the Dave Brubeck Quartet toured the world on behalf of the State Department. Brubeck and his bandmates cultivated jazz fans in unlikely places such as Turkey, Iraq, and Pakistan. Brubeck became such an ambassador for Western life that the New Yorker later ran the joke, "Whenever (Secretary of State) John Foster Dulles visits a country, the State Department sends the Brubeck quartet in a few weeks later to repair the damage."

Brubeck's tunes may even have helped end the Cold War. When Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev found themselves at an impasse during 1988 disarmament talks in Moscow, the Gipper called in the big guns: the Dave Brubeck Quartet. By the time Brubeck and his boys closed their set with "Take Five," even Gorbachev was drumming his fingers on the table in time with the tune. Brubeck quipped to the press, "I can't understand Russian, but I can understand body language." A breakthrough in the talks finally came the next day. Coincidence? Well, the song is pretty catchy.

4. He Could Pull Off a Whirlwind Courtship

When Brubeck went to college, he promised his mother that he'd go to at least one dance with a young lady. Since he didn't have much interest in going, he got a buddy to set him up with the smartest girl they could find. As Brubeck later reminisced, his reasoning was, "[I]f I've got to go to this dance, I'd at least want it to be interesting." They found a whip-smart coed named Iola Whitlock who agreed to be Brubeck's date.

You'd think a jazzman would be crazy about dancing, but Brubeck and Iola spent most of the evening chatting in his car. By the time the dance was over, the couple had decided to get engaged. Smart move by Brubeck: he and Iola have been married since 1942 and have six children. Iola serves as Brubeck's manager, lyricist, and occasional writing partner.

5. He Upstaged Duke Ellington on the Cover of Time

In 1954, the Dave Brubeck Quartet and Duke Ellington were touring the country and helping to turn jazz into a national phenomenon. The media paid attention, and Time dispatched a reporter to write a story about the tour. It was never quite clear which musician was going to be pictured on the cover, though. In the end, the editors gave Brubeck the nod, and he saw the first copy during the tour's stop in Denver.


Brubeck later told PBS that seeing himself on the cover rather than Ellington was a bit disturbing. He had long idolized Ellington, so he felt a little conflicted about stealing the spotlight from his hero. Brubeck modestly explained, "He was so much more important than I was...he deserved to be first."

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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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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May 23, 2017
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