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11 Awesome Musical Performances from NBC's Late Night with David Letterman

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With recent changes announced in the late night talk show landscape, we figured this is a good time to look back at what was, and forever will be, the greatest late night program of its kind in this or any other world: NBC's Late Night with David Letterman.

From 1982 to 1993, every rule about television was spun on its head by the Indiana-bred New Yorker and his young staff of comedy writers. In addition to the groundbreaking routines and counter-cultural spirit, there was an added benefit—outstanding musical guests.

The house band, known as The World's Most Dangerous Band, was led, as Letterman's CBS Orchestra still is today, by Paul Shaffer. Shaffer, a vet from SNL and musical director of the Blues Brothers, was a versatile keyboard player who insisted that his band accompany the musical guest whenever possible.

The original band featured Steve Jordan on drums, who was recruited away by none other than Keith Richards. Replacement drummer Anton Fig has stayed with the group ever since. Sid McGuinnes replaced noted jazz/funk guitarist Hiram Bullock after a year and has also stayed on, and bassist Will Lee has been on board as long as Shaffer.

Since most of these programs are not yet commercially available, we have to rely on those who not only had the foresight to tape these shows when they were broadcast, but have the generosity of spirit to upload them to YouTube.

After much careful research, we found the 11 best musical performances of the old Letterman show on YouTube.

1. June 24, 1982: Ted Nugent, “Improvised Blues Jam”

Before he was a talk radio pest taking the “madman” part of Motor City Madman seriously, Ted Nugent was a great guitarist. If you skip ahead to the 5:20 mark of the couch interview (which unfortunately isn't embeddable) you'll see what made the original Letterman show so great. While still seated (and with his legs crossed) Nugent tears into a blazing blues, communing telepathically with Shaffer as he directs the band. Keep in mind these guys had maybe ten minutes to rehearse. They all make it look easy.

Bonus: Here's Ted and Dave singing Christmas carols on December 25, 1987:

2. July 12, 1982: James Brown, “There Was A Time/Sex Machine/Cold Sweat”

This may very well be the greatest musical guest performance in the history of television. Check out the shots of the audience just going nuts. Paul Shaffer very much takes a back seat and lets the Hardest Working Man in Show Business call the shots. James Brown does the camel walk, gets up and does his thing, and heads backstage while the beat is still going. If you are able to watch this entire recording without getting up to dance you may in fact be dead. (In which case you can stop reading.)

3. July 8, 1983: Talking Heads, “I Zimbra”

Not the clearest recording, but we'll take what we can get. This was the same iteration of Talking Heads that was filmed by Jonathan Demme for “Stop Making Sense.” In the back is keyboardist Bernie Worrell (formerly of Parliament-Funkadelic) who would join Shaffer's band for a stretch during the early CBS years. David Byrne's dance moves are still about 25 years from the future.

Also on the show this night, Grace Jones and Brother Theodore. If you don't know who Brother Theodore is, please, look him up.

4. October 6, 1983: R.E.M., “So. Central Rain”

During R.E.M.'s first television performance, Michael Stipe was so nervous he opted out of all host banter, leaving that to Peter Buck and Mike Mills. “So. Central Rain” was such a new song it didn't even yet have a name.

5. March 22, 1984: Bob Dylan, “Jokerman”

In the 80s, Bob Dylan was weird. His 1983 album Infidels was a bit of a return to form and his catchy tune “Jokerman” was something of a minor hit. When it came time to promote it, he couldn't do anything the easy way. For this one performance on Letterman (where he refused to be interviewed) he was accompanied by the unknown LA new wave group The Plugz. This arrangement of “Jokerman,” while interesting, is quite far removed from the agreeable tune on the Infidels album.

Dylan played two other tunes that night—“License to Kill” and a Sonny Boy Williamson tune called “Don't Start Me Talking.” The punchline? The other guest that night was Liberace.

6. November 13, 1987: Sonny & Cher, “I Got You Babe”

Dave had a great relationship with Cher (back in the day when there wasn't too much bleeping going on on television, she called him an a**hole), so it was on Late Night where the final reunion with Sonny Bono occurred. This performance of “I Got You Babe” doesn't sound too well rehearsed, but that's part of the charm.

7. October 1, 1987: Les Paul, “The Sheik of Araby”

Les Paul, more or less the inventor of the electric guitar, was a New York staple for decades. He played a weekly gig in nightclubs pretty much up until he died in 2009 at the age of 94. During the post-performance interview in this clip he tells Dave that he did another broadcast on that very stage in 1936.

8. November 25, 1986: Robert Cray, “Smoking Gun”

If you are under the age of 30, you've probably never heard of Robert Cray. Do what you can to correct that. He was great, he still is great. This was the first time he ever appeared on television. He was probably a little nervous because he screws up the opening line.

9. June 26, 1987: Suzanne Vega, “Luka”

I can't tell you why Dave is humming along so loudly in a mocking tone at the beginning, but Shaffer and Vega just play through the opening again and pretend it doesn't happen. This is a great performance of a very sad song, and, in ways that I find hard to express, accurately captures absolutely everything about June of 1987.

10. December 11, 1987: Miles Davis, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”

Okay, this isn't exactly the most energetic video on this list, but it surely wins a lot of points for doing its own thing. Where do you see something like this on network television anymore?

11. June 25, 1993: Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days”

When Letterman left NBC, it's a surprise he didn't take a match to the place. The much publicized acrimony with top brass was the juiciest bit of Hollywood business gossip in years. His final show featured a hilarious Tom Hanks as couch guest and Springsteen with the band to play him off. Frequent World's Most Dangerous Band guest David Sanborn accompanied on sax. The show ran late, delaying the evening news, as a final middle finger. The song just doesn't want to end.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]