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Wikimedia // Public Domain

Raymond Scott, Avant-Garde Creator of Classic Cartoon Music

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Wikimedia // Public Domain

If you've ever parked yourself in front of the TV to watch Looney Tunes, The Ren & Stimpy Show, or countless other cartoons, the music of Raymond Scott should be instantly recognizable, even if you've never heard of the man himself. The musical mind behind countless Wile E. Coyote chase scenes (unwittingly) gave cartoons their signature sound, but his real passion was invention—especially when it came to the burgeoning world of electronic music.

Scott was born Harry Warnow in Brooklyn, New York in 1908, and was said to be composing his own music by 1924 in the "audio laboratory" he built as a kid. After graduating from New York's Institute of Musical Art in 1931 (now known as Juilliard), he got a job as a pianist for the CBS Radio orchestra, which was conducted by his brother, Mark. To avoid charges of nepotism, he changed his name to Raymond Scott (which he picked from a Manhattan phone book) and began his career in earnest, establishing a studio, Universal Recording Company, Inc., and a music publishing company, Circle Music, Inc. in 1935.


In 1936, Scott formed the Raymond Scott Quintette (which actually had six members, including the father of film composer John Williams) and his unique musical voice began to appear. Scott's style was a wholly different take on the music of the time—the manic energy and violent rhythms perfectly suited his weariness with modern swing and jazz, and his pieces regularly featured bizarre titles such as "Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies," "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," and "Harlem Hillbilly."

Scott's deconstruction of modern swing music made him something of an eccentric curiosity, but when Warner Bros. bought the rights to his music publishing company in 1942 and began pairing it with their Looney Tunes shorts, he forever became a part of pop culture:


Even though Scott never actually wrote music for these cartoons (and may never have even seen them), the pairing was a natural one. Warner's music director Carl Stalling thought so, too, because he used Scott's tunes in about 120 Looney Tunes shorts over the next 20 years, with the most popular piece being Scott's "Powerhouse."

The deal with Warner Bros. (along with numerous commercial jingles) gave Scott the flexibility to work toward his ultimate goal: invention. In the years after the Warner Bros. purchase, he renewed his focus in the nascent field of electronic music, receiving patents on a number of different instruments, including a sound-effects machine named the Karloff, an early electronic keyboard known as the Clavivox, and his now-legendary attempt at artificial intelligence, the Electronium.

Despite his wild sound, Scott was known for his expectation of perfection from his musicians during practice and a disdain for improvisation. This machine-like attitude toward his musicians helped him make strides in the electronic revolution, as he built an armory of instruments that were less about emotion and more about precision.

Scott spent more than 20 years working on the Electronium, which was conceived as an "Instantaneous Composing Performance Machine" that would compose music while performing it—dubbed by some as "Beethoven in a box." As advanced as this machine was at the time, Scott's vision of music's future ultimately entered the realm of the metaphysical:

"Perhaps within the next hundred years, science will perfect a process of thought transference from composer to listener. The composer will sit alone on the concert stage and merely 'think' his idealized conception of his music. Instead of recordings of actual music sound, recordings will carry the brainwaves of the composer directly to the mind of the listener."

Scott's later career was marked with all manner of electronic experimentation, including a strange yet pioneering album of synthesized lullabies recorded in 1963 called Soothing Sounds for Baby—a three-volume forerunner to the minimalist movement, composed with his Electronium. His array of unique instruments, musical trinkets, and an inimitable sound led to a number of collaborations with a young Jim Henson, who brought Scott on board in the mid-1960s to provide the music for some of the creator's early—very non-Muppet-y—films:


However, as Scott's inventions and experiments became more and more idiosyncratic, his music began to move away from profitability. No longer writing music for commercials or mainstream projects, his later work very rarely saw the light of day, as he spent most of his time tinkering away on the Electronium and other projects—living as a recluse, according to some accounts. Scott reportedly sunk close to a million dollars into the development of the Electronium, but despite the investment—and interest from Motown, where he worked as Director of Electronic Music Research and Development in the '70s—it never became the commercial wonder he imagined, nor was it ever actually completed.

When speaking about Scott's unconventional mind, electronic music icon (and one of Scott's occasional collaborators) Bob Moog said:

"He had so much imagination, and so much intuition—this funny intuition that some people have—that he could sort of fish around and get something to work, and do exactly what he wanted it to do. Obviously not everybody could do this. It took a huge amount of money, and a huge amount of imagination. And an impressive amount of craziness too!"

Scott died in 1994, but since then his music has seen something of a rediscovery, at least in certain corners of the industry. To this day, you can still hear "Powerhouse" and other pieces in your favorite cartoons, and Scott's legacy as a trailblazing figure of electronic music is taking shape as a new generation has come along to add a modern flair to his work. Though people might not have been able to wrap their minds around his inventions and eccentricities at the time, his vision of the future of electronic music no longer sounds so far-fetched.

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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.