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TheStarburstChannel via YouTube

A Brief History of M.C. Hammer's Pants

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TheStarburstChannel via YouTube

Don’t call them parachute pants. "I detest the term," Stanley Kirk Burrell, better known by his stage name of M.C. Hammer, told Racked in 2016. "They’re called Hammer pants."

As a colloquial term, Hammer is correct. Since breaking on to the hip-hop scene in 1990 with the chart-topping tune "U Can’t Touch This," the performer has been synonymous with the flashy pants—billowy trousers that droop in the crotch and taper to the lower leg—and has inspired many fashion designers and fellow recording artists.

While Hammer has done more to entrench the pants in the public's consciousness than virtually anyone, he was not exactly their originator. Harem pants, parachute pants, or his preferred term of "Hammer pants" all have origins that can be traced back to the mid-19th century, with a radical feminist movement and the fashion sense found within Swiss sanitariums.

Although baggy, voluminous trousers initially appeared in Persia, India, and Turkey thousands of years ago, the most direct lineage of today's Hammer pants may have started with women who began insisting on more practical garments in the 1800s.

In the Victorian era, women’s fashions were rather restrictive, with tight belts, bodices, and corsets squeezing their bodies. When a New York socialite/women's rights activist named Elizabeth Smith Miller traveled to Switzerland in the mid-1800s, she noticed that patients in sanitariums favored baggy pants worn under shortened dresses that made exercising and moving around easier. When Miller returned, she spread the word; so did fashion magazines and other forms of media that further popularized the idea of loose-fitting trousers.

Amelia Bloomer—editor of The Lily, America's first newspaper created for and by women—was an early advocate for this unconventional method of dress. Writing of the "freedom dress" in her own magazine, Bloomer (who inspired the term "bloomers") encouraged women to wear pants that didn’t bind the legs and to comment on the gender disparity between men's and women's fashions.

For the latter reason, these "Turkish Trousers" never fully caught on: Some women simply didn't feel comfortable emulating a man's attire. It wasn’t until 1911, when fashion icon Paul Poiret introduced a version of the pants dubbed "harem" trousers, that women were once again intrigued by the freedom of movement they allowed.

The pants enjoyed sporadic revivals over the next several decades, but their next major fashion wave wouldn’t occur until Burrell decided he needed to stand out on stage.

Born in Oakland, California in 1962, the future M.C. Hammer had designs on playing major league baseball before being seduced by the performing arts. Going to discos in the late 1970s, he discovered that it was easy to capture attention with his fluid dance moves—which he accentuated by buying triple-pleated zoot suit bottoms that were so large they drew an audience all their own.

"The looser the pants, the more accentuated your dancing becomes," Hammer told The New York Times in 2008.

Eventually, the discos gave way to club dates—then to a record contract. In 1990, Hammer was being dubbed one of Entertainment Weekly's "Entertainers of the Year" and managed to move more than 8 million copies of his album, Please Hammer, Don't Hurt ‘'m.

Hammer's popularity gave him the financial means to have his own outlandish harem pants custom-made, and they became touchstones of his music videos, live performances, and contribution to fashion. Vanilla Ice, who was garnering his own fame at roughly the same time as Hammer, once boasted that his record label paid him $1 million to wear Hammer pants during a show.

"You can make a fashion statement," Hammer told ABC News in 2009 of his penchant for loose-fitting pants. "You can move in 'em. You can dance in 'em ... and it gives you freedom of movement. It's a slight delay. You move, and then the pants move, so it brings a nice little flair."

Eventually, Hammer's flair pants went the way of Steve Urkel, slap bracelets, and other '90s fads—though they've made periodic reappearances, both in parodies (like Hammer’s recent Starburst commercials) and in prominent fashion collections from the likes of Dior and Burberry. They were also seen in a video from 1992 that made the rounds last year featuring the otherwise fashion-conscious Ryan Gosling appearing on what he recalled was “some kind of Canadian Star Search.”

"I don't think we gave that [style of] pant enough of a shot," Gosling said during an appearance on The Graham Norton Show. "We gave up with M.C. Hammer, but we should have kept them going."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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