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Hannah Keyser

The Time Muhammad Ali Made a Record About Fighting Tooth Decay

Original image
Hannah Keyser

There is a version of this story that is very short and goes something like this: Here is a real thing that exists. Now go tell all your friends about it.

The longer version of the story is this: In 1976, then-two-time World Heavyweight Champion and all-around famous athlete Muhammad Ali got together with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ossie Davis, Howard Cosell, and assorted other people who you would think had better things to do and recorded a record called Ali and His Gang Vs. Mr. Tooth Decay. It's a sometimes-musical cautionary tale against the dangers of ingesting too much sugar aimed at—and partially voiced by—young children.

Aside from a small note in the San Bernardino County Sun that the record was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Children's Comedy Record, there is little to be found in terms of contemporary response. Since then, the record, and several pseudo-sequels it spawned—including one in which Ali is joined by President Jimmy Carter to tackle the slightly more insidious problem of drug use—have become collectors' items, but it still doesn't seem to have found a wide audience outside the realm of quirky record aficionados.

I'm here to tell you, that anonymity is largely deserved. If you see it at a yard sale for a reasonable price, certainly pick it up, if only for the cover art and value as a conversation starter. And if you do, go ahead and listen to it once or twice, but probably once is enough.

Don't want to take my word for it and don't have time to seek out an authentic copy? You can go ahead and listen to the entire thing online right here. But if you still don't want to commit nearly 40 minutes to out-of-date dental advice, I went ahead and pulled some highlights.

It starts with a song

The theme song is the best part. That's undeniable. It's groovy and genuinely catchy and has been stuck in my head for the past few days. (You can listen to it all on its own right here.) But it makes no sense. It's not even about tooth decay, and relevancy within this totally bizarre context is hardly the only confusing part. Let's consider some lyrics:

Who knocked the crack in the Liberty Bell?/Aliiii, Aliiii!

I'm not sure that's entirely true, but okay.

Who rode the ride of Paul Revere?/Aliiii, Aliiii!

That one is definitely not true. I'm pretty sure that was Paul Revere.

Who dumped the tea in the Boston Bay?/Aliiii, Aliii!/Set fire to the ship that was sitting in the bay?/Aliii, Aliii!/Destroyed the tea so our country could be free/Dressed up like an Indian, who was he?

Now this is just irresponsible educating. Even if Muhammad Ali (born 1942) was present for the Boston Tea Party (1773), I'm not sure he, or anyone else there, "destroyed the tea so our country could be free."

The chorus seems to provide some sort of explanation, saying that "Ali's always gettin' blamed for things he didn't do." But the examples seem like good things? And was anyone accusing Muhammad Ali of participating in the American Revolution? Maybe it's a conscientious objector thing. Regardless, it leads not-so-smoothly into our tale of adventure.

The Plot

Howard Cosell, with admirable aplomb, introduces us to a gang of kids facing crippling ennui and formidable philosophical questions. “What else can you do in the summer besides swinging, hanging out in the woods and making blueberry pies?” one of them bemoans. (I would have suggested expanding their baking repertoire to include peach crumble, but this doesn't come up.)

Instead, we cut to "two funny looking characters": Mr. Tooth Decay has a vaguely Russian accent, and Sugar Cuba has the sort of sniveling, weasel-y voice required of villainous sidekicks. He does not, in a case of missed opportunity, have a Cuban accent. He is, however, possibly a reference to how cavities are much like the communism in Cuba. Which is to say, bad.

Back with the gang we meet Ali, who follows the kids into the clubhouse. Upon spotting the famed boxer, the kids break out into a monotonous chorus usually reserved for reciting the Pledge of Allegiance: "Hey, that’s Ali. What’s he doing here? Oh he’s so big and handsome. Wow. Let’s get his autograph."

But there is no time for autographs. A song breaks out extolling the infinite strength of Muhammad Ali. It includes the lyric "Gang, I murdered a dead tree"—a feat that is neither feasible nor environmentally responsible. Naturally, this convinces the gang to dedicate their summer to fighting tooth decay.

But en route to meet one of Ali's allies in the fight, the gang notices that Andy and Kelly have snuck off together. Since these are children we’re talking about, get your mind out of the gutter. They’ve just gone for some ice cream! Sweet, innocent ice cream. Or so you thought. "Ice cream!? Oh no!" Ali cries, thwarting their plans.

“Hey man, that’s like taking candy from a baby,” the shopkeeper offers with an implied wink. After the gang explains their mission to Ol’ Blue Eyes, the curiously melodious shopkeeper (spoiler: it’s Frank Sinatra) and rejects his entreaties to join the fight, they’re off to a cow pasture, where Ali tries to sell them on the idea that raw milk is as tasty as ice cream. There, Brother St. John, played by noted biodynamic farming expert Ossie Davis, lectures on the value of organic food and homemade preserves. He also offers a quick primer on fluoride and some since-debunked advice to always brush immediately after eating.

When they get back to the clubhouse, the kids notice posters of sweets that look "good enough to eat" and their resolve wavers. Ali gets the gang back on track with some spoken word poetry (maybe?) about how "this won’t be easy or fun/get ready to knock him on his buns." Great stuff. But those trouble-makers Andy and Kelly are at it again. Before they can be saved, both succumb to taking a bite of sugar cake and become our first cavity victims in the fight against Mr. Decay.

Fortunately, they will also be the last victims, as apparently there's been a pretty simple solution all along. Ali spells it out, "Hey gang, let’s take this toothbrush and put it over the door because Mr. Tooth Decay won’t have nothing to do with a clubhouse that has the protection of a toothbrush. Let’s use this toothbrush from now on as a symbol of good oral hygiene."

With that the villains are defeated and we jump to Cosell announcing a match between Ali and his archenemy. "As one looks at Ali, one has to wonder what he’s thinking. This is the greatest adversary he has ever faced. Tougher than Joe Frazier and tougher than George Foreman. One has to wonder if the confidence is really there this time. Can Ali put away Mr. Tooth Decay?" If the statute of limitations hasn't passed I think Fraizer and Foreman might have a libel case on their hands for this unfavorable comparison. The rest of the match is broadcast entirely in poorly-plotted rhymes and the whole record wraps with this memorable warning: "Mr. Milkshake will have his way, chocolate fudge he just can’t budge and so to the dentist we make our way."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]