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The Post-Hit Careers of 5 One-Hit Wonders

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One-hit wonders, those unavoidable flash-in-the-pan pop tunes, usually become more about the song than its artist—just try naming the band behind “Who Let the Dogs Out?” from memory. We’ll wait. In the meantime, here are five one-hit wonders who deserve to be remembered for their five minutes in the limelight—and what they’ve been up to since. (Note: We didn't count anything that charted outside of the Top 40 as a hit.)

1. Daniel Powter, “Bad Day”

For most of 2006, the Canadian crooner’s sad-sack anthem was inescapable. The hit soundtracked Coca-Cola commercials and American Idol sob stories alike, going platinum three times over. The piano ballad was a critical darling, too: Billboard, which would later crown Powter as the one-hit wonder of the decade, named the song “one of the great discoveries of the year.” Even a squeaky-voiced Alvin and the Chipmunks cover charted, peaking at #67 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Then Powter kicked up the leaves and the magic was lost. He failed to chart any of his next ten singles on the Billboard Hot 100, and only found lukewarm success in his native Canada with two more top 50 hits. (“Bad Day” only hit #7 there in the first place.) That didn’t faze Powter, who released a best-of album in 2010—which only charted at #65 in Japan, and nowhere else—before taking a hiatus from music until 2012.

2. The Vapors, “Turning Japanese”

In 1980, the British New Wavers knew they had a hit on their hands with “Turning Japanese”—so much so that they saved it for their second single to prevent one-hit wonder status. The band’s first single, “Prisoners,” whiffed, so lead singer David Fenton and Co. brought out the big guns: “Turning Japanese” notched Top 10 slots in the UK, Canada, and New Zealand, and peaked at #36 in the U.S.

A handful of flopped singles and an ambitiously written but poor selling album later (Magnets), the band called it quits. Two years after “Turning Japanese,” Fenton turned to a career in law, guitarist Edward Bazalgette turned to a job as a TV producer at the BBC, and drummer Howard Smith turned to his 20/20 hindsight to wax nostalgic about the tune: “Maybe it would have been better to have made ‘Turning Japanese’ our third or fourth single.”

3. Toni Basil, “Mickey”

Like Eddie Murphy or Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, Toni Basil’s one-hit-wonder-ness only applies to her brief, albeit ridiculous, music career. Twenty-one years after graduating from a stint as a Las Vegas High School Wildcat cheerleader, Basil brought back her acrobatics for "Mickey," a 1981 RIAA-certified platinum smash and famously disputed pseudo-love letter to Monkee Micky Dolenz. The single climbed to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100, but would be the only Basil song to crack Billboard’s top seventy.

With her two-album music career running on fumes, Basil jettisoned her flashy music video know-how (before her pop career took off, she co-directed Talking Heads’ “Once In a Lifetime” with David Byrne) into her choreography repertoire: After acting in films like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, Basil went on to choreograph films like Legally Blonde, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and That Thing You Do.

4. Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby”

The emcee is technically a two-hit wonder, but since his second hit is a cover of another one-hit wonder (a pilfered take on Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” resulted in a Top 10 hit and a lawsuit), we’ll let that one slide. In 1990, “Ice Ice Baby” stole both its bassline (from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”) and the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100, going platinum just four months after its release.

Vanilla Ice burned out on his persona in the mid-90s, but came back with a brand new renovation circa 1996: a passion for real estate. The rapper-turned-real-estate-guru signed on for three seasons of a reality series called The Vanilla Ice Project on the DIY Network in 2009 and published a guide to real estate in 2011. He still releases music on Psychopathic Records, which could prove difficult during his latest exploit: A new series called “Vanilla Ice Goes Amish” is slated for the DIY Network later this year.

5. Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

McFerrin might be the most accomplished one-hit wonder out there—he has one lone chart topper, but a whopping ten Grammy Awards. Three of those trophies came from the breezy “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” a 1988 hit that took home Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 1989 ceremony. McFerrin refused to sing the song for the Grammys, mostly because he couldn’t: The song features eight tracks of the crooner’s voice dubbed on top of one another.

Though his one hit “ended McFerrin’s musical life as he had known it,” according to NPR, McFerrin channeled his creativity into different outlets. The singer makes regular tours as a guest conductor for symphonies (he’s conducted the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony) and volunteers as a music teacher at public schools. Don’t worry, be happy indeed.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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