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7 Famous Songs Written in Less Than a Day

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Bob Dylan once said "Tangled Up in Blue" took him ten years to live and two years to write. Sure, some singers pore laboriously over lyrics and melodies, but some plug out classic tunes in no time flat. Here's a tip of the cap to seven speed demon songwriters who whipped up some of their biggest hits in a matter of hours—if that.

1. Mott the Hoople, “All the Young Dudes”

Perennially underachieving Mott the Hoople almost called it quits in 1972 before David Bowie—probably assuming the messianic role of his glam rock alter ego, Ziggy Stardust—swooped in to save the band. He offered up “Suffragette City” if it meant the band would stave off breakup plans. Mott the Hoople’s bassist, Pete Overend Watts, turned it down.

Bowie called Watts two hours later, saying: “I’ve written a song for you since we talked, which could be great.” That song, penned by Bowie while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a room in Regent Street, London in front of Mott vocalist Ian Hunter, was “All the Young Dudes.”

2. The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

Guitarist Keith Richards was passed out in the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida when he woke up, pulled out the tape recorder he carried with him, and recorded the riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Richards recorded himself saying “Can’t get no satisfaction” before dropping his guitar pick and falling back asleep.

When he woke up and played back his tape, it was “two minutes of ‘Satisfaction’ and forty minutes of me snoring.” Richards worried that the inspiration for the riff drew from Martha and the Vandella’s “Dancing in the Street,” but the song (and guitar hook) stuck.

3. Blur, “Song 2”

Blur never settled on exactly how long they spent writing and recording “Song 2”—the track’s working title in the studio—but the bandmates agree they came up with the hit in all of its improvised “woo-hoo!” glory in ten minutes to half an hour.

Lead singer Damon Albarn dismissed the hit as “just headbanging,” but producer Stephen Street claims Albarn wrote the song’s nonsensical hook on the fly. Street recalls, “Damon went ‘woo hoo” because he had nothing else prepared.”

4. Queen and David Bowie, “Under Pressure”

The Thin White Duke proved his marathon songwriting chops once again when he and Queen spent “an extremely long night” (according to Queen guitar slinger Brian May) in a jam session at Queen’s Mountain Studios in Switzerland. Bowie took charge of the song’s lyrics while Freddie Mercury spearheaded the music songwriting.

Mercury’s improvised scat singing from early in the jam session made the official cut, a song Queen debuted live quickly, though Bowie and May didn’t love the song. When the song was recorded and mixed (nothing was written before the session), Bowie and Queen went for pizza, according to Roger Taylor.

5. R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”

Guitarist Peter Buck spent a classy evening drinking wine, watching the Nature Channel on mute, and learning how to play the mandolin when he “played ‘Losing My Religion all the way through, and then played really bad stuff for a while.”

Buck woke up with the song’s chords all but forgotten, relearning to play it by listening back to the tape. The impromptu late night recording captured the song’s main riff and chorus—not bad for an unseasoned mandolin player who was lucky to think to tape his laid-back practice session.

6. Tears For Fears, “Mad World”

Brooding Brit Curt Smith told the Boston Globe, “I remember it being written in an hour or two in Roland’s little flat above a pizza place.” Smith and Tears For Fears bassist Roland Orzabal penned it as the first single of the band’s 1982 album The Hurting. In the liner notes for the record’s 1999 rerelease, Orzabal confessed that his flat probably wasn’t the best place to pen a track called “Mad World": “That came when I lived above a pizza restaurant in Bath and I could look out onto the centre of the city. Not that Bath is very mad—I should have called it 'Bourgeois World.'"

7. David Bowie, “Life on Mars?”

Bowie quipped that writing “Life on Mars?” — a parody of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” cover — was “easy” in a 2008 article in the Mail on Sunday, and in true, flamboyant Bowie fashion, it was.

I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn't get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen ('William Morris,' so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

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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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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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