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"Heroes" by David Bowie

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Written by David Bowie and Brian Eno (1977)

Performed by David Bowie

The Music

In the summer of 1977, David Bowie was living in Berlin and working on a new album. One evening, he saw his producer Tony Visconti sitting on a bench near the Berlin Wall with a young German woman. “Tony was married at the time,” Bowie recalled, “I think the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that he was very much in love with this girl. It was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”

The song, “Heroes,” about a love that defies borders, was the title track of a landmark Bowie record, part of what later came to be called “the Berlin trilogy.” Bowie’s relationship with the Berlin Wall took an even more poignant turn in 1987, when he performed “Heroes” on a stage near the west side of the wall. He remembered, “There were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert, where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did 'Heroes' it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.”

Note: On January 8, Bowie’s 66th birthday, he surprised the world by announcing his first new album in ten years. The lead-off single, “Where Are We Now?” has several lyrical references to the streets and sites of Berlin, fueling speculation that the album, due in March, may pick up the thread of the trilogy.

The History

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On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of East Germany ordered workers to begin building a wall through Berlin. Within two weeks, the wall had blocked nearly a hundred miles of border between the East and West sections of the city. Made of barbed wire, it was christened by the East German leaders as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” that would shield its population from the corrupting capitalist influences of West Germany. 

But there was a more pressing—though unspoken—reason for the wall. Since 1949, over 3 million East Germans had given up on Communism and defected to the west side of Berlin in search of better lives. Despite the propaganda about anti-fascism, the wall was essentially built to plug that population leak. In time it would come to represent something bigger—the Cold War wedge between Western nations and Eastern Bloc countries.

Two Berlins

How did East and West Germany become divided in the first place? With the defeat of the Nazis and the Axis powers at the end of World War II, Allied leaders met to determine Germany’s future. Shortly after, the country was split into four separate zones. The eastern part went to the Soviet Union, while the west was occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France.

But the modern city of Berlin was an uneasy fit for the Russians. Leader Nikita Krushchev later complained that it “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat.” As early as 1948, a Soviet blockade aimed to starve the western influence out of the city. The response by the United States and its allies was the “Berlin Airlift,” where planes flying overhead supplied sectors of the city with over two million tons of food, fuel, and goods. The Soviets called off their blockade the following year.

A decade later, as Russia continued to watch the best minds—engineers, doctors, teachers—flee East Berlin, they made noise again about ousting the Western occupiers. Conferences, summits and negotiations between Russia and the Allied countries followed, but led nowhere. Then, in 1961, after mass defections (in the first 12 days of August, over 18,000 East Germans crossed over), Krushchev authorized the government to shut down the border for good.

Checkpoints and Death Strips

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Before the wall was built, Berliners from both sides could move around the city freely, to shop and go to movies and so on. Trains and subways regularly crossed the border. After the wall was up, that freedom disappeared. There were only three passages through the border: Checkpoint Charlie, Checkpoint Bravo, and Checkpoint Alpha. Patrolled by East German soldiers, these checkpoints were mainly for diplomats and officials, who were thoroughly screened and questioned. It was nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to pass through these checkpoints.

But the checkpoints didn’t stop defectors from finding ways through, under and over the wall. As time passed, East Germany bolstered the crude barbed wire wall with one made of concrete—12-foot tall, 4-foot wide and topped with a pipe that made climbing over it nearly impossible. And for those still brave enough to attempt escape, they had to deal with the so-called “Death Strips.” In front of the wall on the East German side, there were strips of soft sand (to show footprints), floodlights, attack dogs, trip-wire machine guns, and soldiers instructed to shoot escapees on sight. From 1961 to 1989, around 170 people were killed trying to defect. But over 5000 succeeded in crossing the border (by means of everything from hot air balloons to underground sewer pipes).

Tear Down This Wall!

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In 1987, President Reagan gave a speech in Berlin where he famously urged Russian leader Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” It was an important moment in Cold War history, and as a verbal gauntlet, played a part in bringing about the end of the division between East and West Berlin.

That end came on November 9, 1989, when the East German government announced that “permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints.” The wall was inundated with people from both sides, crossing over freely, hugging, kissing, and singing in celebration. Some brought hammers and picks, chipping away at the wall. All those pieces eventually became collectible items. East and West Germany reunified into a single state a year later.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.