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19 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Beethoven

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Wikimedia Commons

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December of 1770 in Bonn to parents Johann and Maria, who were excited and scared about the future of their newborn son. Stubborn and self-involved, dramatic yet loving of his friends, Beethoven would become a virtuoso pianist and canonical composer of dozens of symphonies, concertos for piano, piano sonatas, and string quartets. Having performed brilliantly for much of his youth and into his early thirties, the musician would slowly lose his hearing and ultimately focus his efforts on composing alone. Even after he’d lost his most precious sense, Beethoven would create some of the most moving works of all time.

Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph chronicles the life of the master musician, painting the picture of a character who loved and hated ferociously, of a Europe wrought with revolution and enlightenment, and of a Vienna housing some of the foremost icons of history (Mozart and Haydn would predate Beethoven there). Below is a list of things you might not know about this beloved artist.

1. Beethoven was actually the third Ludwig van Beethoven in his family. The first was his grandfather, a noted musician in Bonn, and the second was Beethoven’s older brother, who passed six days after his birth.

2. Beethoven’s father noticed early on the boy’s penchant for playing. He set his sights on creating a prodigy as Mozart was just years before, and Johann beat music into Ludwig, forcing him to practice day and night to reach the same level of genius. Neighbors of Beethoven remembered the small boy standing on a bench to reach the keyboard, crying, his father looming over him.

3. Having left school at age 11 to help with household income, Beethoven never learned how to multiply or divide. To his last day if he had to multiply, say, 60 x 52, he’d lay out 60 52 times over and add them up.

4. Among his friends, Beethoven was a notorious spacecadet. Once, while speaking to family friend Cacilie, she noticed him zoning out. When she demanded a reply to what she’d said, his answer was, “I was just occupied with such a lovely, deep thought, I couldn’t bear to be disturbed.”

5. On his first visit to Vienna, 17-year-old Beethoven was scheduled to perform for Mozart. The latter was generally unimpressed with other musicians, having been so far ahead of his peers in talent and accomplishments. No one really knows what happened in that fateful meeting, but myth has it that Mozart walked out of the room saying, “Keep your eyes on him—someday he’ll give the world something to talk about.”

6. Beethoven was known for his improvising (before he lost his hearing). One contemporary of his, composer Johann Baptist Cramer, told his students that if you haven’t heard Beethoven improvise, you haven’t heard improvisation.

7. After moving to Vienna in his early 20s, Beethoven took lessons from Joseph Haydn, father of the symphony. As per Beethoven’s habit with teachers, the two often got frustrated and ultimately didn’t like each other very much.

8. When Beethoven had been composing for some years, the piano began to come into its own. Whereas his predecessors had composed for harpsichord, Beethoven decided he would focus his efforts on the instrument no one had yet written comprehensive work for.

9. Beethoven had varying luck with women. Some admired him for his genius while others found him repulsive. A woman he courted once called him “ugly and half crazy.”

10. Beethoven was a sick kid to his dying day. Throughout his life he would suffer from deafness, colitis, rheumatism, rheumatic fever, typhus, skin disorders, abscesses, a variety of infections, ophthalmia, inflammatory degeneration of the arteries, jaundice, chronic hepatitis, and cirrhosis of the liver.

11. Though he attributed the beginning of his deafness to an instance in which he was startled and fell, the foundation would have probably been a disease he had suffered from as a child like typhus, smallpox, etc. He began to hear constant buzzing at age 27.

12. The Moonlight Sonata was a hit from the start, dedicated to Beethoven’s pupil and love interest Julie Guicciardi.

13. Beethoven hated giving piano lessons unless they were for exceptionally talented students or attractive young women of whatever talent.

14. He was instrumental in setting the tone of critiques of his work in the leading music journal of the day, AMZ, telling the editor to back off with negative comments if he wanted to receive copies of the musician’s work.

15. His Symphony no. 3, called Eroica, was dedicated to Napoleon (before he’d disappointed Beethoven and crowned himself absolute monarch, as opposed to being a symbol of revolution and new era in Europe) and written at a time when Beethoven considered moving to Paris. The move never happened, but the symphony would be a defining artistic work of the German enlightenment.

16. One of the major inspirations of Beethoven’s famed Ninth Symphony was poet Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which he’d been meaning to put to music since his youth.

17. Despite his acclaim, Beethoven always had to work hard to ensure a comfortable living by giving piano lessons, writing work commissioned by wealthy Viennese residents, and, of course, publishing his own music.

18. He died during a thunderstorm at age 56, his friend comparing the occasion to the composer’s symphonies with “crashes that sound like hammering on the portals of Fate.”

19. Thousands joined the procession at his burial. His monument said, simply, “BEETHOVEN.”

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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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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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