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JenniferWarnes.com

"Song of Bernadette"

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JenniferWarnes.com

“Song of Bernadette”
Written by Jennifer Warnes, Leonard Cohen, and Bill Elliott (1986)
Performed by Jennifer Warnes

The Music

One of the great overlooked albums of the 1980s, Famous Blue Raincoat by Jennifer Warnes features the singer covering the songs of Leonard Cohen. Warnes had toured with the Canadian poet-musician as a background vocalist for years, and had a deep feeling for his dense, lyrical songs.

Warnes even ended up co-writing one of the album's tracks, based on the life of a modern-day Catholic saint. She explained, “I was given the name Bernadette at birth. But my siblings preferred the name Jennifer so my name was changed. In 1979, on tour in the south of France with Leonard, I began writing a series of letters between the Bernadette I almost was, and Jennifer—two energies within me. One innocent, and the other who had fallen for the world. So the song arose in a bus nearby Lourdes. I was thinking about the great Saint who held her ground so well, and was not swayed from what she knew to be true. But the song is also about me longing to return to a place that was more pure, honest and true.”

Here's Warnes performing the song live:

The History

In 1858, near Lourdes, France, 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirious had visions of a lady believed to be the Virgin Mary. Soubirious was later canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, and Lourdes became a destination for religious pilgrims from around the world.

Marie-Bernarde Soubirious was born in 1844, the eldest of four children. Though her family was initially well-off, a series of misfortunes plunged them into poverty. At the lowest point, they lived together in a dank one-room basement that was once used as a prison cell. Marie-Bernarde, nicknamed Bernadette, was a cheerful, kind-hearted girl who always pitched in with the chores to help her family.

The Visions

On February 11, 1858, she was out collecting firewood when she came upon a grotto filled with debris. It was there that she had the first of her 18 visions. As she described it: “I saw a lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle and a yellow rose on each foot, the same color as the chain of her rosary; the beads of the rosary were white.”

Bernadette said that initially she felt confused by the vision, but was soon overcome with a peaceful feeling. When she told her parents about what she'd seen, her mother forbade her from returning to the spot. But Bernadette couldn't stop thinking about the lady in white.

A few days later, back at the grotto, she had another vision. On her third visit to the grotto, the lady in white spoke to Bernadette, requesting that the girl keep returning over the next month. Soon, hundreds of people were accompanying Bernadette to the grotto. While no one else could see the the lady, the witnesses claimed that when the visions occurred, they felt a change in the atmosphere and that Bernadette's face took on an otherworldly look, as if she was in ecstasy.

Bernadette described the lady as being “so lovely, that when you have seen her once, you would willingly die to see her again.”

In her ninth vision, Bernadette was asked by the lady to drink from the spring. But there was no spring. Bernadette began to dig with her bare hands in a muddy patch near the grotto and drank a few drops of dirty water. In the days after, a clear spring began to flow from this hole. And this was the beginning of the healing waters that have become one of the main attractions for miracle seekers at Lourdes.

During one of her final visions, Bernadette asked the lady her name, and was given the answer: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Though the idea of the Virgin Mary's conception by her mother Saint Anne had been part of Catholic doctrine for centuries, it had had only been formally proclaimed by the Pope a few years before the Lourdes visions. Some believe that as an uneducated child, Bernadette would not have known the phrase Immaculate Conception.

Sister Act

In the years after the visions, Bernadette's life was a constant parade of uninvited visitors, skeptics and religious pilgrims, all curious to hear her recount her tale over and over. Though she always answered questions with sincerity and humility, she grew weary of the attention.

In 1866, Bernadette escaped into the convent at Nevers, and as Sister Marie-Bernarde, assumed the simple, quiet life of a nun. With her positive attitude and patience, she was an inspiration to the other sisters. But over her 13 years there, she had ongoing respiratory problems. Often confined to her bed for months at a time, she never complained. She said her function was to “suffer” and to offer her own “feeble prayers” to God. When asked why she didn't return to Lourdes for healing, she replied, “It is not for me.”

In 1879, Sister Marie-Bernarde died from complications of tuberculosis. She was 35.

Sainthood

After her death, there was a Papal investigation and examination of the evidence surrounding her visions. The Catholic Church believes that one of the signs of a saint is a person whose body remains intact after death. Bernadette was exhumed 30 years after her burial. Though she hadn't been embalmed, she was remarkably well preserved. In 1925, her body was transferred to a glass shrine at Nevers. Thin wax masks were laid over her face and hands, which had begun to discolor.

In 1933, she was canonized by Pope Pius XI, for both her visions and the simplicity of her life. The little girl from Lourdes became Saint Bernadette, the patron saint of the sick and also of the family and poverty.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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