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9 Novelty Dances You Probably Never Heard Of

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It wasn’t all that long ago that we were all being educated on The Dougie, and it seemed that as soon as that class ended, we were catching up with all of our pop culture heroes and their versions of the “Harlem Shake.” Even more quickly came the inevitable embarrassment of ever getting caught up in such an obviously ephemeral thing in the first place, multiplied one million times over if a version of yours was plastered on the unforgivingly permanent internet.

Novelty dance crazes have been around for over a century, and while they aren't lighting up music halls anymore, they certainly haven't been completely forgotten.

1. THE GRIZZLY BEAR

Said by some to be introduced in Chicago in 1909 by John Jarrott and Louise Gruenning, "The Grizzly Bear" began a trend of dances named after animals. This trendsetting dance did its best to document an entire grizzly/human encounter. Participants would take a very heavy lateral step while bending the upper part of the body from side-to-side with their hands in front of their chest. They'd then literally yell out, “It’s a Bear!”

Broadway audiences first saw the dance in 1910’s Over the River during the song “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now.” To capitalize on the trend, music publisher Ted Snyder hired his staff lyricist Irving Berlin to write lyrics to George Botsford’s “The Grizzly Bear Rag” piano solo, resulting in “The Dance Of The Grizzly Bear,” which in itself expanded its popularity.

In 1912, newspaper reports claimed that New York put the dance under a “social ban.” Allegedly, one of the reasons why former President Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural ball was cancelled in 1913 was because of his disapproval of The Grizzly Bear, The Turkey Trot, and The Bunny Hug. The official reason given was that Wilson felt the ball was “too expensive and unnecessary for the solemn occasion.”

More recently, Downton Abbey had Thomas and Daisy perform it in its second episode, but there were plenty of dissenters like Mrs. Patmore. 

2. THE TURKEY TROT

Jarrott and Gruenning were also responsible for The Turkey Trot, although references to a Turkey Trot dance go back as far as 1895 in the song "Pas Ma La.” The Trot was essentially a face-to-face dance with some innocent swaying, “pumping or flapping” and, most scandalously, tight holding of the waist, known in the late '00s-early '10s as “hugging.”

It was an excuse for “lingering close contact,” which was credited as a reason for the dance’s popularity. That was also the driving force behind some of the more unbelievable claims of punishment doled out to those who performed it. Fifteen women were fired from an unnamed magazine for performing the dance during their lunch break. A New Jersey court allegedly imposed a 50-day prison sentence on young women for doing the Turkey Trot. Sylvia Dannett and Frank Rachel’s book Down Memory Lane: The Arthur Murray Picture Book of Dancing also claimed that the Vatican issued an “official disapproval.”

3. THE PEABODY

The Peabody, named after William Frank Peabody, was a popular dance in the 1930s and '40s. People cannot seem to agree on William Frank Peabody’s occupation: he was either an early 20th century New York police lieutenant or a New York City fireman. What everybody does agree on is that he was fat.

Peabody’s corpulence is relevant because the foxtrot-type ballroom dance had the woman stand to the right of the man and not directly in front of him so people like Lt. Peabody (or Jackie Gleason) could be free to dance without disturbing his partner’s movements.

4. THE STROLL

After successfully inventing The Bunny Hop, regulars on American Bandstand tried to create dances for every single song, which is how The Stroll came about. The dance is slow, simple, and network television friendly—boys on one side, girls on the other, and one boy and one girl meet in the middle and shuffle.

The Stroll was invented as a dance to Chuck Willis’ song “C.C. Rider,” giving Willis the moniker “King of the Stroll.” In 1957, Dick Clark advised the group The Diamonds to keep the fad going by creating a song about the dance itself, resulting in “The Stroll,” which hit number one on the Cashbox charts.

5. THE FREDDIE

Freddie Garrity and his band The Dreamers were the court jesters of early British pop in the 1960s. They hit the top ten in the United Kingdom in 1963 with “You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody” and promoted the single on American television with lead singer Freddie doing his silly dances. Asked by a host what the dance was called, Garrity was supposedly caught off guard before saying it was called “The Freddie.”

Despite Chubby Checker recording his own version of the song “Let’s Do the Freddie,” the dance didn’t catch on, and “Do the Freddie” peaked at #18 in 1965. A different generation may only be familiar with the song and the dance from a scene with Shelley Long in the eighties cult classic Troop Beverly Hills.

6. THE OSTRICH

Tasked with coming up with a new song for the Pickwick music label in 1964, staff songwriter Lou Reed wrote “The Ostrich.” The song was played with Reed-invented “Ostrich Tuning” (where every guitar string was tuned to the same note) and the dance moves sounded difficult (“Hey, put your head, oh, upside your knees/now, do the ostrich, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah/Yeah, you take a step forward, you step on your head").

7. THE FLY

Chubby Checker was a millionaire by the age of 22, thanks to a string of successful singles that bridged the dance music gap between teenagers and adults. Everybody remembers “The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again,” but some of Checker’s work during his most popular years isn't remembered now, like “The Fly,” which peaked as high as #7 on the charts in the U.S.

8. THE PONY

“Pony Time” was actually Chubby Checker’s second #1 single, but it never matched the ubiquitous popularity of “The Twist.” Outside of Cindy Wilson of The B-52’s performing The Pony in both the 1980 music video and Saturday Night Live performance of “Give Me Back My Man,” the dance faded away with the '60s.

In a Rolling Stone interview conducted two months ago, Chubby Checker said, “The Robot is just the Pony.” In regards to breakdancing, Checker said, "That's the Pony, too. You can get so much out of [music] once they slowed it down. The Robot came from it, breakdancing came from it, the spinning dancing on the street. All that is part of the Pony."

9. THE HULLY GULLY

A fun conspiracy theory about The Hully Gully claims that it was promoted to slow down the popularity of the uninhibited Twist. The Hully Gully wouldn’t stop The Twist from its destiny, but it did get the thumbs up from the very popular Ed Sullivan.

The dance was started by Frank Rocco in Miami Beach in either 1959 or 1960, and it's believed to be the first line dance to turn one quarter before repeating the steps while facing a different wall. Disco dance The Hot Chocolate was a simplified version of The Hully Gully, and “The Electric Slide” is virtually identical to “The Hot Chocolate,” which means you have been forced to do a version of The Hully Gully by an inebriated relative at a wedding.

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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
crime
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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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