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Wikimedia Commons

A Song of the South, Born in the North

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Wikimedia Commons

While “Dixie” (you know, “Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton/Old times there are not forgotten…”) might seem as inseparable from the South as collard greens and barbecue, the song was actually written in New York by an Ohio native. 

In 1859, Daniel Decatur Emmett was working as a composer for Bryant’s Minstrels, a touring blackface minstrel show. Over his lifetime, Emmett told the story of the song’s creation with wildly varying details (sometimes, he claimed to have written the song in just a few minutes, sometimes it was a single rainy afternoon and still other times the composition took up to a week), but a few things are certain. The leader of the show wanted a new song to perform before the closing number of their next performance, so Emmett holed up in his hotel room and penned “Dixie.” It was performed for the first time on April 4, 1859, and was such a hit with audiences in its early performances that the group bumped it back in the program and made it the grand finale.

For some reason, there was a delay in registering the copyright for the song, and knockoff versions began to pop up among different minstrel acts. Touring groups spread the different variations around, and it quickly became a favorite across the country. At another point in American history, “Dixie” might have gone the way of many other hit songs and faded away over a few months. The year after it debuted, though, southern states began to declare their secession from the United States, and as the song spread through the South, it fell on the ears of a people and a new country in need of an anthem.

“Dixie” seemed a natural fit as a soundtrack for secession. It painted a quaint picture of the South and plantation life, and came complete with a catchy slogan of defiance and patriotism: “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand/To live and die in Dixie.” The Southern secessionists soon made the song their own, despite its Yankee origins, and played it in between speeches and votes when delegates met to vote for secession in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Early the following year, Hermann Arnold, a Montgomery, Alabama bandleader, was tasked with arranging the music for Jefferson Davis’ inauguration as the president of the Confederate States of America. Arnold had no idea what to do. He wanted something “patriotic sounding,” but almost every song he could dig up had something to do with, or reminded him of, the North or the Union. His wife came to his rescue and suggested “Dixie.” The band performed it as a military quickstep at the inauguration, and its status as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy was cemented (though a national anthem was never officially chosen, Davis later told Arnold that his arrangement of “Dixie” would make a fine choice).

To be fair, not every Southerner was so enamored with the song. When asked if "Dixie" was on the way to becoming the South's “national air”, secession activist Edmund Ruffin could only sigh, "I am afraid so.” After the Civil War, the bandleader for the 30th Virginia Infantry admitted that he never played “Dixie” unless he was forced to. 

In response to its perceived deficiencies—like the exaggerated “slave speak” pronunciations of some words, jokey tone and Northern provenance—some Southern creative types tried to improve the song or shroud its point of origin and make it into a more respectable Confederate song. New lyrics about the war were drafted, new (Southern) roots were invented and hidden meanings (It’s an allegory about secession, the Richmond Dispatch claimed) were “uncovered.”

None of this sat very well with Emmett, a staunch Union supporter. “If I’d known to what use they were going to put my song,” he reportedly said, “I’ll be damned if I’d have written it.” He eventually came around on the song and learned to appreciate the South’s embrace of his work. After the war, he went on farewell tour and sang the song across the region. 

While “Dixie” is still synonymous with the South, it was eventually reclaimed by the North in some minds. After he heard of the Confederates’ surrender at Appomattox, President Abraham Lincoln asked the White House band to play the song. “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I ever heard,” he said. “Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but we have fairly captured it.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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