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7 Facts About 'Tom's Diner' While You're Waiting for Your Coffee

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Suzanne Vega wrote her wordy a cappella tune "Tom’s Diner" in 1981 during a visit to a diner in her neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The place itself is actually called Tom’s Restaurant and would become even more famous as the exterior of the diner frequented by the characters on Seinfeld. The song appeared as the opening track on Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, in 1987, but her label passed it over as a single in the States, going instead for “Luka,” a beautifully melodic downer about an abused child. ("Luka" reached No. 3 on Billboard’s chart, so it wasn’t a bad decision.) But “Tom’s Diner” ended up with a much longer, more interesting life full of revivals, remakes, and other shots at immortality, including a prominent sampling in Fall Out Boy’s hit “Centuries” last year and a recent, well-received cover sung by Britney Spears on the Giorgio Moroder album Déjà Vu. Some of the other highlights of “Tom’s” enduring life:

1. "Tom's Diner" was written from a male perspective.

Vega wrote the song when she was attending nearby Barnard Collage and stopped in for coffee. It’s written from a specifically male perspective, inspired by her photographer friend, Brian Rose, who told her that he perceived the world as if through a pane of glass. She thought of that as she sat at Tom’s and tried to imagine how her friend would see the things she saw that day. (She never mentions being a male narrator in the song, but she does imply that the character at first thinks the woman “hitching up her skirt” outside the diner is flirting with him, then he realizes “she does not really see me ‘cause she sees her own reflection.”)

2. The song references real places and events.

The “bells of the cathedral” Vega sings about are those of the nearby St. John the Divine, a majestic structure with a long history of its own, where she once had a "midnight picnic" with songwriter Jack Hardy.

3. Some intrepid fans figured out which day the narrator was at Tom's.

The official “Tom’s Diner Day”—the day Vega presumably wrote the song—is Nov. 18, 1981. An article posted on her official website traces the lyrical evidence, mainly the reference to the newspaper of that day, specifically “the story of an actor who had died while he was drinking/it was no one I had heard of.” Her friend Brian Rose, in his own article, placed the writing of the song between 1981 and 1982. Actor William Holden’s body was discovered Monday, Nov. 16, 1981, having lain in his California home for a week after he fell and fatally hit his head while drunk. The news broke Tuesday, Nov. 17, but The New York Post, one of the only two New York papers with the “funnies” the narrator is seeking, reported it on Wednesday, Nov. 18. And the horoscopes that the narrator had to turn through were, in fact, near the funnies in the Post. Alas, it didn’t rain that day, as the lyrics suggest it was doing while she wrote it. Vega, asked about the contradiction, said she actually wrote it on at least two separate mornings at Tom’s.

4. The remix wasn't Vega's creation, but she loved it anyway.

In 1990, three years after the original was released, two record producers from England working together as DNA remixed Vega’s original a cappella version with an R&B beat that sounded similar to Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me).” They called it “Oh Susanne!” and sold it at their local record store without proper permission from Vega’s label, A&M Records. When A&M got wind of this, they considered legal action. But Vega asked to hear the version and loved it, so she convinced A&M to pay DNA a flat fee and distribute it. The track got instant radio play and became a hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

5. The song became so popular, Vega was able to release an entire album of covers. 

There have been many versions and samplings since DNA’s release, including an entire 1991 record called Tom’s Album that collected nine versions by other artists along with several Vega versions. It included a track by an act called Bingo Hand Job, which was the nom de plume R.E.M. used for a couple of secret London shows with English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Other “Tom’s” riffs explored accidental pregnancy (Nikki D’s “Daddy’s Little Girl”), the Gulf War (Beth Watson’s “Waiting at the Border”), and TV’s I Dream of Jeannie (Marylin E. Whitelaw and Mark Davis’ “Jeannie’s Diner”).

6. Hip-hop artists love sampling "Tom's" beats.

Other samplings and reimaginings throughout the years have come from a surprising number of hip-hop artists: Felt’s “Suzanne Vega,” Lil’ Kim’s “Right Now,” 2 Pac’s “Dopefiend’s Diner,” Drake’s “Juice,” Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire.” Timbaland even sampled the song on “Nothing But a Number” for the TV show Empire earlier this year.

7. The song was used to create new music technology.

Vega is known as “the mother of the MP3” because her a cappella version was used by German engineer Karl-Heinz Brandenberg to fine-tune his compression algorithm when he was creating the format we all use now for our digital song files. Vega even visited the lab where it was done (and briefly haggled with the engineering team about the perfection of their sound quality). And there’s a haunting “version” of the song called “moDernisT," composed of the echoes from the compression process. So when you download Britney’s new version of “Tom’s Diner,” you have Vega to thank in more ways than one.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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