Original image

Debunking 6 Rock 'n' Roll Urban Legends

Original image

Most great songs also have a great backstory—but the tragic or funny or drug-fueled origin stories surrounding these rock classics simply aren't true.


The Legend: Known as the "Ohio Slayers" rumor, the faint scream heard midway through the song "Love Rollercoaster" was the cover model from the Ohio Players's Honey album being stabbed to death in the studio (or being burned by heated honey).

The Truth: That particular vocalization was keyboard player Billy Beck trying to hit a Minnie Riperton-style high note. The model in question, Ester Cordet, was a former Playmate of the Month who was provocatively drizzling honey into her mouth on the album cover. She is reportedly alive and well and has been married for many years to motivational guru Robert Ringer (whom she met at a party at the Playboy Mansion).


The Legend: The haunting 1981 hit was written by Phil Collins after he witnessed a man drowning. He was too far away to offer assistance, but he saw another man sitting idly by on the shore. The man could have easily reached the swimmer, but didn’t even try to help. Years later, after some clever detective work, Collins located the bystander and invited him to a concert, giving him a front row seat. He then had a spotlight shine on him when he performed this song to publicly humiliate him.

The Truth: Collins wrote “In the Air Tonight,” and many of the other songs on his first solo album, Face Value, while alternately depressed and angry over his disintegrating marriage. His first wife, Andrea, was reportedly fed up with his constant touring and had taken the couple’s two children and fled back to her native Canada, where she eventually filed for divorce.


The Legend: The private plane that Buddy Holly chartered on February 3, 1959 ("the day the music died") was named American Pie, which is what inspired Don McLean to write his number one hit.

The Truth: The single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza that Holly chartered in Iowa had no name, just a registration number (N3794N). It crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone aboard including Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. The Big Bopper). McLean had a paper route at the time and years later would remember cutting open a bundle of papers and seeing a headline about the deadly crash. He came up with the line “the day the music died” and proceeded to compose one of the most over-analyzed tunes ever.


The Legend: The Peter, Paul and Mary hit that sounds like a childlike nursery rhyme is actually written all in code and is about smoking marijuana.

The Truth: “Puff” obviously refers to toking; Jackie Paper means rolling papers; Honah Lee was a sly nod to Hanalei, a Hawaiian village known for its potent pot… It was all too obvious to those in the know, right? Wrong. Leonard Lipton, a freshman at Cornell University in the spring of 1959, read a poem by Ogden Nash about a dragon at the campus library. Walking back to the dorms to meet his friend Peter Yarrow, he thought to himself that he could write a better poem about a dragon, and proceeded to weave a story of the end of childhood innocence via a magical character named Puff. Yarrow set Lipton’s poem to music, and “Puff” reached number two on the Billboard chart in 1962. About the weed rumors, both Lipton and Yarrow emphatically assert that “at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass.”


The Legend: Queen was secretly encouraging fans to smoke weed—just play the chorus to “Another One Bites the Dust” backwards and you’ll hear Freddie say “it’s fun to smoke marijuana.”

The Truth: Ever since someone decided to ruin their phonograph needle and play the Beatles’s “Revolution 9” backwards (“turn me on, dead man”), folks have been finding secret messages that artists have been allegedly hiding in their songs. How a backwards, garbled message would inspire millions of fans to seek out their neighborhood dealers is unclear, but what is patently ridiculous is that anyone would believe that Queen (or any artist other than Pat Boone) would go to such great lengths in 1980 to conceal a comment about marijuana. Also, Queen's label's spokesperson continues to deny any backmasking in the song. 


The Legend: The lyrics to this Kingsmen garage classic are obscene, and could be clearly heard if you played the single on 33 1/3 rpm instead of 45.

The Truth: “Louie, Louie” was written by L.A. singer/songwriter Richard Berry in 1956 and became a local hit on the Pacific coast a year later. The lyrics, about a Jamaican sailor lamenting to a bartender how much he misses his girl, are written in Pidgin English (“Me see Jamaica moon above, it won’t be long me see me love”), which made them a bit hard to decipher in the first place. Add to that the inferior recording equipment in the studio used for the quicky-single, and the words became even more garbled. The rumor about the naughty lyrics had such legs, however, that the FBI even got involved after many parents complained to the Bureau about FCC regulations and obscenity laws. J. Edgar Hoover and his boys ultimately concluded (after a 30-month investigation) that they were “unable to interpret” any of the words on the record.

This piece originally ran in 2013.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]