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Columbia Records

10 Folk Facts About Bob Dylan's First Album

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Columbia Records

Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album, released on March 19, 1962, is Dylan before he became Dylan. The 20-year-old folk singer had clocked less than a year in New York City by the time he recorded it. Only two original songs are on the album, alongside 11 recordings of classic folk songs. Here are 10 facts about Bob Dylan, an album that only took two afternoons to record.


Robert Shelton, the folk music critic for The New York Times, was impressed by Dylan’s performances at house parties and hootenannies. According to Clinton Heylin’s biography of Dylan, Behind the Shades, the young Minnesota transplant pestered Shelton to write about him, but Dylan didn’t have a gig Shelton saw as worthy of the Times' attention until September 1961, when he opened for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s Folk City. Shelton wrote a glowing review.

“Resembling a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik, Mr. Dylan has a cherubic look and a mop of tousled hair he partly covers with a Huck Finn black corduroy cap,” wrote Shelton. “His clothes may be in need of a bit of tailoring, but when he works his guitar, harmonica or piano and composes new songs faster than he can remember them, there is no doubt that he is busting at the seams with talent.”

Accounts vary about to what degree the review prompted Columbia Records executive John Hammond (who had already had been keeping tabs on Dylan) to offer the artist a five-year contract, but Dylan was signed by the record company shortly after the performance.


The singer/songwriter was sleeping on couches and staying with a series of friends in the folk music scene, according to Heylin. He moved to 161 West 4th Street, and the photo for the cover of his second studio album, 1963's The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was shot around the corner.


As was typical before Dylan himself helped usher in the age of the singer/songwriter, most of the songs were takes on well-known standards. His own “Talkin’ New York” is a “talking blues” song about his early life in Greenwich Village. The line about “blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day” was likely a reference to his gig playing harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s third album. “Song to Woody” is a tribute to his idol, Woody Guthrie, whom he met shortly after arriving in the city.


The handwritten lyrics for the song wound up with Bob Gleason and his wife, Sidsel, a New Jersey couple who were friends with Guthrie and often hosted his Sunday get-togethers with emerging folk singers. They include the inscription: “Written by Bob Dylan in Mills Bar on Bleecker Street in New York City on the 14th day of February, for Woody Guthrie.”


Hammond and Dylan used a studio in Columbia’s New York City headquarters and cut the album on November 20 and 22, 1961. Dylan was unaccompanied, musically. Dylan and Hammond recorded 17 songs and did only one take each. “Mr. Hammond asked me if I wanted to sing any of them over again and I said no,” Dylan said in 1962. “I can’t see myself singing the same song twice in a row.”


Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia and a longtime friend of Hammond, stopped by and voiced his approval from the engineer’s booth. According to No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by The New York Times’ Robert Shelton, Dylan found it more important that an elderly African-American janitor stopped his work to listen to him play “Fixin’ to Die,” a song popularized by blues singer Bukka White. According to Shelton, "It impressed [Dylan] more than anything Hammond or Lieberson said."


Hammond used just two microphones: one on Dylan’s voice and one on his guitar. Because of this, “[m]any hardcore fans will only listen to the record in mono,” writes Brian Hinton in Bob Dylan Complete Discography. “[T]he stereo separation of this album is brutal, with vocal and guitar each occupying a virtual exclusive zone.”


Hammond enlisted Dylan's first reviewer, Robert Shelton, to write the liner notes for Bob Dylan. “The Times music department had an unwritten code that members should have nothing to do with the production of recordings that they might review,” Shelton wrote in No Direction Home. “But nearly every member earned supplementary income by writing liner notes, anonymously or pseudonymously.” As “Stacey Williams,” Shelton wrote that Dylan’s steel-string playing “runs strongly in the blues vein, although he will vary it with country configurations.”


While Shelton wrote in the liner notes that Dylan's girlfriend Suze Rotolo lent the singer her lipstick holder to use as a bottleneck during the recording sessions, Rotolo disputes this claim. "I didn't wear lipstick," she wrote in her 2008 memoir, A Freewheelin' Time.


Bob Dylan flopped, and around the Columbia offices the young singer began to be known as “Hammond’s Folly.” By the time it was released, Dylan had already changed his focus to original material, according to Hinton's Bob Dylan Complete Discography. That April, Bob Dylan sat down in a café and began work on “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.