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12 Educational Facts About the Recorder

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Many of us know the recorder as the plastic pipe that gets handed out in elementary school music class. More closely resembling a toy than something a rock star would carry, it doesn’t have a reputation for being the coolest instrument in the world. But that doesn’t mean it deserves to get a bad rap—a long list of artistic geniuses from William Shakespeare to Paul McCartney have turned to the recorder for inspiration. Here are 12 facts worth knowing about this historic instrument.

1. IT DATES BACK TO THE MIDDLE AGES.

Centuries before the clarinet, the harmonica, and the tuba were invented, early musicians were playing recorders. The oldest surviving example of the instrument dates back to 14th-century Europe. Back then—unlike the mass-produced, plastic items today’s grade-schoolers are familiar with—recorders were carved from wood or ivory.

2. ITS NAME USED TO MAKE MORE SENSE.

Before the age of voicemail and tape recorders, the verb “to record” meant “to memorize by heart.” To this end, the simple recorder flute came in handy. One possible explanation for its name is that it was a good instrument for practicing, or “recording.” In languages other than English, the name doesn’t translate neatly and is usually referred to as a different type of flute.

3. KING HENRY VIII COLLECTED THEM.

King Henry VIII is better known for his notorious marriages than his musical talents. But he was also an accomplished composer, publishing several songs and instrumental works during his lifetime. His music hobby led to an ambitious instrument collection: Before he died in 1547, Henry VIII had acquired 76 recorders (the instruments, which were played in choirs, had such a limited range that several were needed for each song). Rather than letting them gather dust in a case, he made sure they were used for their intended purpose. According to the Metropolitan Museum the flutes were likely played by the royal professional recorder consort and other recorder masters when the King himself wasn’t playing them.

4. IT WAS A CLASSICAL MUSIC STAPLE.

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Serious musicians may turn their noses up at the recorder today, but it was an important member of the wind family during the Baroque period. Georg Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach all incorporated the instrument into their compositions. In opera, the clear, sweet sound of the recorder was used to evoke erotic themes and pastoral images like shepherds and birds.

5. IT MAKES AN APPEARANCE IN HAMLET.

The recorder was so popular during the 16th century that it was used to illustrate a metaphor by the age’s most popular writer. In the third act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character asks Guildenstern to play the recorder for him. After he explains that he doesn’t know how, Hamlet insists that “'tis as easy as lying.” Still he refuses, and Hamlet says that Guildenstern should have no trouble playing the simple recorder after “playing” him like an instrument:

“[Y]ou would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”

The comparison made its way into the common vernacular, but today you’re more likely to hear someone claim they were “played like a fiddle” than a recorder.

6. IT COMES IN A VARIETY OF SIZES.

One reason that soprano recorders are a popular choice for grade school music classes is their child-friendly package. But the instrument’s simple form lends itself to several shapes and sizes, the largest being the sub-contrabass recorder, which stands 8 feet tall. To play it, musicians blow into a tube-shaped mouthpiece that swoops down from the top of the recorder. Then there’s the adorably-named garklein, which measures 6 inches long and emits high-pitched tones like a whistle.

7. THE FLUTE LED TO ITS DEMISE.

While the recorder is technically a type of flute, it’s the transverse flute (a flute that’s held horizontally and blown into from the side) that we associate with the term. The transverse flute migrated to Europe from Asia in the 14th century, and by the 19th century, it was featured in most orchestras. The recorder, with its lack of range and volume, didn’t stand a chance against the bold sound of a flute piercing through a concert hall. As the 19th century progressed, the recorder was phased out of the modern orchestra altogether.

8. IT WAS SAVED BY EARLY MUSIC ENTHUSIASTS.

The recorder’s status as a relic from a bygone era is what helped make it cool again. At the turn of the 20th century, more museums were displaying historical instruments, and interest in pre-classical music began to rise. This helped pave the way for the recorder to make a comeback as a revivalist instrument. Soon it began appearing in arrangements of early music. In some cases, like the performance given at 1885’s International Inventions Exhibition, collections of old instruments were displayed at concerts.

9. IT WENT PLASTIC IN THE 1960s.

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Around the middle of the 20th century the recorder underwent its cheap, lightweight transformation. By that point, plastic was easy to come by, and using the material produced an instrument that was tougher than its wooden counterpart and a whole lot cheaper. Not only that, but the sound quality didn’t suffer as a result.

10. IT FOUND A PLACE IN ROCK 'N' ROLL.

Music teachers might have an easier time selling the recorder as a hip instrument if they played up its connection to classic rock. Paul McCartney was a notable fan, incorporating it into the Beatles song “Fool On The Hill” and some of his solo pieces. It can also be heard in the music of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. Though plenty of rock stars used the instrument, not all of them were proud of it. According to one rumor, Jimi Hendrix was so ashamed to have played a recorder on “If 6 Was 9” that he asked for it to be listed as a flute on the album credits.

11. A FAMOUS COMPOSER BROUGHT IT INTO CLASSROOMS.

German composer Carl Orff is best known for his scenic cantata Carmina Burana (the first movement of which you've likely heard before), but he’s also credited with revolutionizing children's music education. One of the core principles of his "Orff Schulwerk" teaching style dictated that if children could sing the notes they were playing they’d have an easier time learning the music. The soprano recorder, similar in range to the voice of a child, was a natural fit. His ideas were becoming popular around the same time recorders made the switch to plastic, which meant more schools could afford to buy them in bulk.

12. IT TURNS KIDS OFF MUSIC.

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If you want your child to fall in love with music early in life, steer them away from the recorder. At least that’s what one paper published by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2002 suggests. For the study, researcher Susan O'Neill of Keele University surveyed 1209 students about the impact the recorder had on their musical ambitions. She said in a press release that the children “tended to view the recorder as 'not a real instrument' or 'a child's instrument' and limited in its ability to express the music they want to play.” As the students grew up feeling limited by instruments like the recorder, they stopped feeling motivated to play music.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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