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Hear The Most Popular 7 Seconds of Drumming Ever Recorded

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by James Hunt / Mental Floss UK

In May 1969, a funk and soul group called The Winstons released a single: Color Him Father. It sold over a million copies and eventually reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100, winning a Grammy the following year. But despite the lead track's popularity, its B-side, Amen Brother, contains what may be the most listened-to slice of music from the last century.

When it was released, the song - an instrumental cover of Jester Hairston's 1963 song, Amen - went virtually ignored in favor of the acclaimed lead track. But in the years since, a seven-second drum solo performed by Gregory Cylvester "G. C." Coleman halfway through the song has been sampled over and over again, to the point where entire musical genres are based around it. At current estimates, over 2,000 released tracks make use of it, and more are created every day.

The drum solo became known as the Amen Break (a break is a section of a song where all but one instrument, usually drums, stop for a few seconds) after - by chance or providence - it gained popularity in the hip-hop scene of the mid 1980s. The nature of the solo allowed a number of different sounds to be cut up and rearranged to form entirely new beats, enhancing its popularity with sampling artists looking for clean drum loops to base their tracks around.

The earliest appearance of the sample on a released record is the track I Desire, from Salt-N-Pepa's 1986 debut album Hot, Cool & Vicious, though it also appears on Stetsasonic's 1986 track, Bust That Groove. Just two years later, it appeared on 10 albums (including NWA's seminal Straight Outta Compton), and by the mid-90s it was routinely appearing on hundreds of releases a year, buoyed by its discovery by British dance music producers who used it as the very basis for the new jungle music scene.

By 1997, it had become so popular that it appeared on both Oasis' hit song, D'You Know What I Mean, and David Bowie's Little Wonder, despite the artists having nothing to do with the subcultures that popularised it. According to WhoSampled, a site which tracks the use of common samples, it has already been featured on 6 releases this year, averaging more than one a week.

It's hard to say why this break snowballed in popularity over any others, though some experts say it's because the break's syncopated (irregular) rhythm means it's possible to create lots of variations by sampling and rearranging the track without making the joins too obvious.

And while the members of the band never received royalties from the use of their recording, a 2015 online campaign by British DJ's Martyn Webster and Steve Theobald raised £24,000 for Richard Spencer, the frontman and only living member of the group that produced the recording.

You can listen to the full version of The Winston's Amen Brother using the YouTube link below, but the famous moment occurs at 1:26 in. Even if you've never heard it before, we're confident you'll recognise the sound of those drums - and from now on, you'll notice them everywhere.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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