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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Original Telephone: The Bizarre Musical Language of Jean-François Sudre

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There’s a famous dispute over who invented the telephone. According to some, it was Alexander Graham Bell. According to others, Elisha Grey got there first. Then there’s the German inventor Philipp Reis and his “Reis telephone,” which was based on an earlier idea by the French scientist Charles Bourseul. And no discussion of 19th century inventors would be complete without Thomas Edison, who patented his “carbon microphone” in 1877, which led to a patent fight that reached the Supreme Court.

But before all of them was the little-known French musician and inventor Jean-François Sudre. His invention may have little (if anything) in common with a modern electronic telephone, but Sudre is nevertheless credited with coining the word telephone and attaching it to a remarkable system he devised for transmitting messages in the early 1800s.

Sudre was a violinist, composer, and music teacher who had been educated at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris. It was his musical background that in 1827 led Sudre to devise a system of communication in which different combinations of the seven different notes of the musical scale—doh, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti—were assigned to all the words in the language. Playing these different combinations of notes could ultimately be used to send musically coded messages on practically any musical instrument. 

In Sudre’s system, on their own the seven notes of the scale represented seven basic, high-frequency words: no (doh), and (re), or (mi), at or to (fa), if (sol), the (la) and yes (ti). Forty-nine possible two-note combinations were used for pronouns, prepositions, and other high-frequency words, like I (doh-re), good (mi-sol), what (fa-doh), and thank you (sol-ti). And 336 three-note combinations were reserved for days (Monday = sol-sol-doh), months (August = re-re-mi), seasons (winter = doh-doh-fa), units of time (year = doh-re-la), and dozens more commonly used words like water (doh-sol-ti) and bread (doh-sol-mi).

As the combinations of notes lengthened, Sudre divided the language into broad thematic categories designated by their first note, or “key.” So all the words in “the Key of Doh” were concerned with “physical and moral aspects of men” (eye = doh-re-mi-re, superstition = doh-mi-ti-ti), while the Key of Re was reserved for “family, household, and dress” (umbrella = re-doh-sol-ti, rent = re-mi-fa-ti). Nouns were pluralized by lengthening their final syllable, while the feminine equivalents of masculine words were produced by accenting or stressing the final syllable—so the combination ti-sol meant sir or Mr, while ti-SOL was madame or Mrs.

Sudre called his system Solrésol, his musical translation of the word “language.” He spent years championing it and publicizing it at demonstrations all over Europe, in which he would ask for random words and phrases from the audience, play them on stage on his violin, and then, to the audience’s amazement, have his assistant—who was positioned outside of normal speaking range—come to the stage and accurately relay the messages word for word. 

As neat an idea as Solrésol was, however, it had two principal drawbacks. Firstly, the person receiving your coded message would have to have perfect pitch in order to correctly interpret the notes you’re playing—and even then the margin for error was terrifically small. Mishear the first note of Sudre’s word for asthma (fa-la-la-sol) as one note higher than it actually is, for instance, and you’ll translate it as excrement (sol-la-la-sol). Hear the “res” in his word for buttons (sol-re-re-do) as “mis,” and it’ll become the Solrésol word for scab (sol-mi-mi-do). Not only that, but the distance over which you can transmit your message in Solrésol is obviously limited by how loud the instrument you’re playing it on is. Sudre’s backstage assistant might be able to hear, but how could you communicate a message from, say, one town to another, or between two ships at sea? 

To get around these issues, Sudre spent years compiling an entire dictionary of Solrésol [PDF] published three years after his death, in 1865, and eventually elaborated his system so that words could be communicated not just using the seven different notes of a scale, but the seven different colors of the rainbow. But in order to solve the issue of transmitting messages over distances, Sudre conceived of an enormous musical instrument, capable of playing the different notes and different musical nuances required to communicate Solrésol messages, which he called the téléphone—a combination of the Greek words for far and sound.

Although both Sudre’s “telephonic system” of musically encoding messages and his enormous musical foghorns failed to catch on, he can at least be credited with the invention of the word telephone—two decades before Alexander Graham Bell was even born. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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