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Harrison Krix

7 More Really Weird Musical Instruments

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Harrison Krix

Folks are always inventing new ways to produce sound. At the same time, we learn of traditional instruments from all over that are unlike any we've seen before. Here are some more in a continuing series on strange and wonderful musical instruments.

1. Wheelharp

The wheelharp is a fairly new musical instrument that produces the rich sounds of stringed instruments. A keyboard controls 61 bowed strings, so one musician can sound like an orchestra- or at least the string section. The wheel harp was inspired by the hurdy-gurdy, and comes in two models: the radial model you see here, and one with a more conventional flat keyboard attached to the wheel. You can hear several sections of music played on the wheel harp at Antiquity Music.

2. Hardingfele

Photograph by Frode Inge Helland.

A hardingfele or hardanger fiddle is a violin with twice as many strings, a traditional instrument in Norway. Underneath the normal four strings are four or five other drone strings, which vibrate when the upper strings are played. The instrument resembles a violin, usually with more ornate carvings and inlays. A hardingfele player traditionally leads a Norwegian bridal procession to the church. Listen to the sound of a hardingfele here

3. Bellowphone

Leonard Solomon is the father of a bizarre collection of homemade instruments, the most popular of which is called the Majestic Bellowphone. You can see Solomon play the bellowphone in this video clip. Another instrument he created is called the Oomphalapompatronium

4. Singing Ringing Tree

Photograph by Flickr user Pigalle.

Four sculptures in East Lancashire, England, together make up an art installation call the Panopticons. One of the sculptures is actually a musical instrument called the Singing Ringing Tree. The tree, designed by Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, is made of steel pipes of differing lengths and orientations. The music is provided by the blowing wind. Take a listen to the eerie sounds it makes

5. Gameleste

Björk commissioned the design of several custom instruments for her album Biophilia. Björgvin Tómasson built the gameleste as a hybrid combination of a gamelan and a celesta. See how the instrument was built, and hear it in action

6. Sharpsichord

Sound sculptor Henry Dagg spent five years developing the sharpsichord, a solar-powered music box, sometimes called a pin-barrel harp. Its perforated cylinder contains 11,520 holes into which an artist can plug pins in order to create melodies. As the cylinder rotates, the pins pluck strings to create the sound. Dagg describes the sound as "a cross between a harp and a bass clarinet." Judge how it sounds for yourself. Björk used the sharpsichord on her Biophilia album. It was the only one of the strange new instruments she used that was already in existence

7. Holophonor

Photograph by Harrison Krix.

In the TV series Futurama, a holophonor is a musical instrument that is also a hologram projector, but the catch is that you have to play it well to produce holographs. Harrison Krix made this fictional instrument a reality. He converted an old clarinet by adding 54 LEDs and various other parts to get the look right. You see it here displayed as being held by two robot devil hands. Check out the process of building the instrument.

"Only a few people in the whole universe can play one of these, and they’re not very good at it."

Your favorite odd instrument, if not found here, might be found in the posts 8 Odd and Awesome Musical Instruments, 8 Weird and Wonderful Musical Instruments, 8 Strange and Different Musical Instruments, Mother Nature's Music,or You play a what?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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