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11 Obscure References in Classic Songs— Explained!

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We've all heard these classic pop and rock hits a thousand times. But even if you know all the words, do you know what they were about?

1. "You’re So Vain," Carly Simon

“You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.”

The gavotte is a French folk dance that was popular in the late 16th century. It was somewhat majestic and pose-y, long before vogueing came into … well, vogue. Simon has stated in interviews that she pictured the character in her song making a dramatic entrance, one hand raised and the other on his hip, much like those elegant pantaloon-wearing Baroque folks did back in the day.

2. "The Joker," The Steve Miller Band

“Some people call me Maurice, ‘cause I speak of the pompatus of love.”

“Pompatus” is, indeed, a made-up word, but Mr. Miller didn’t exactly coin it. He has admitted in the past to have been influenced by a 1954 doo-wop hit by the Medallions called “The Letter.” Written by Vernon Green, the song contains the line “Oh my darling, let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality and discuss the puppetutes of love.” According to Green, he’d made up the word “puppetutes” to describe his fantasy paper-doll, or puppet-like, girl. In a “’scuse me while I kiss this guy” moment, Miller transposed “puppetutes” into “pompatus.”

3, 4, and 5. "Down Under," Men at Work

“Traveling in a fried-out Kombi” ... “He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich” ... “Where beer does flow and men chunder”

This tune is full of Australian slang, which is what made much of it indecipherable to those of us above the Equator. A “Kombi” is what is officially called a Volkswagen Type 2 in Oz, but the nickname comes from its German moniker: Kombinationskraftwagen. Americans know it better as a VW Microbus.

Vegemite is an Aussie favorite—a spreadable paste made from brewer’s yeast, vegetables, wheat, and some assorted spices. They slather it on toast, hide it inside pastries, and layer it between slices of bread to make a delectable sandwich.

Chunder is what a lot of folks do after consuming too much beer, or other alcohol, or spoiled food, or during a bout of the flu. In other words, el barfo.

6. "Surfin’ USA," The Beach Boys

“You'd see 'em wearin' their baggies, Huarache sandals, too”

“Baggies” were the boxer-style bathing suits preferred by surfer dudes over the traditional Speedo-type form-fitting model. The extra fabric helped to prevent surfboard wax from painfully ripping out upper-leg hair when the surfer rose from a sitting to a standing position. Huarache is a type of woven leather sandal, one that’s actually closer to a shoe than a sandal. One that, I cringe to report, my Dad used to wear with socks (“Support plus absorption equals comfort.”)

7. "Jailhouse Rock," Elvis Presley

“The whole rhythm section was the Purple Gang”

Thanks to its proximity to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, Detroit was an important stop on the Underground Booze Railroad during Prohibition. Liquor, legal in Canada, was smuggled across the Ambassador Bridge or even driven in Model Ts across the frozen Detroit River during the winter, where it then generally ended up in the hands of the notorious Purple Gang. What Al Capone and his gang were to Chicago, Sammie Cohen, the Bernstein brothers, and the rest of the Purples were to Detroit. The Purple Gang started out as a pipeline for Canadian whiskey to Capone, but eventually a turf war ensued.

8. "Hotel California," The Eagles

“Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air”

According to the Eagles’ then-manager, “colitas” was explained to Don Henley and Glenn Frey as literally meaning “little buds” by their Mexican-American road manager, and further as Spanish slang for “marijuana.”

9 and 10. "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen

“Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” ... “Bismillah! No!”

Scaramouche is a traditional clown character featured in Italian commedia dell'arte. He is a stock character in Punch and Judy shows and often gets his head knocked off of his shoulders by Punch. The fandango is a lively couples dance usually accompanied by guitars, hand claps and castanets.

"Bismillah" is an Arabic word that means "in the name of God." It is used at the head of almost every chapter in the Holy Quran.

11. "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers

“And if I haver, yeah I know I'm gonna be, I'm gonna be the man who's havering to you.”

Thanks to the thick Scottish accents of Charlie and Craig Reid, “haver” actually sounds like “heaver,” which makes one think of chundering (see above). However, in Scotland and northern England, to haver is simply to talk nonsense or babble.

Update:

10 More Obscure References in Classic Rock Songs

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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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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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