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The Surprising Last Words of 11 Entertainers

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What do actors, musicians, and writers say when they die? I consulted the reference Last Words of Notable People by Bill Brahms to collect eleven examples. Read on, and get a hanky ready.

1. Bob Hope (1903-2003)

The words: "Surprise me."

The story: "Bob" Hope's full name was Leslie Townes Hope. As an actor and radio personality, he became best known in his later years for entertaining American troops stationed overseas. He died at Toluca Lake, California at the ripe old age of 100. His wife Dolores asked Bob where he wanted to be buried, prompting his last words.

Reports of Hope's death were greatly exaggerated in 1998, when the Associated Press accidentally released a prepared obituary. The incorrect news spread so rapidly that it was announced on the floor of the US House. Representative Bob Stump, R-Arizona, Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, broke the "news."

2. Glenn Miller (1904-1944)

The words: "Where the hell are the parachutes?"

Glenn MillerThe story: Glenn Miller was a big band leader and US Army Major during WWII. Miller boarded a plane bound from England to Paris, where he planned to perform concerts for troops on leave in Europe. His last recorded words as he boarded the plane (above) were spoken to Colonel Norman Baesell, who replied: "What's the matter Miller, don't you want to live forever?" The plane was lost over the English Channel.

3. Eugene O'Neill, Senior (1888-1953)

The words: "I knew it! I knew it! Born in a hotel room and, goddamn it, dying in a hotel room."

Eugene O'NeillThe story: O'Neill was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, best known for Long Day's Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. He was born in a room at the Broadway hotel on what is now Times Square. He died at age 65 in a Boston hotel after suffering neurological disease. The hotel was later turned into the Shelton Hall dorm at Boston University.

O'Neill had an alcoholic son, Eugene O'Neill Jr., who committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40. The Junior O'Neill wrote in his note, "Never let it be said of O'Neill that he failed to empty a bottle. Ave atque vale." (The last phrase is Latin for "Hail and farewell.")

4. "Alfalfa" (Carl Switzer) (1927-1959)

The words: "I want that fifty bucks you owe me and I want it now!"

Alfalfa
The Story: Carl Dean "Alfala" Switzer was an actor, best known for his childhood work in Our Gang, though he also appeared as an adult in films including It's a Wonderful Life and Island in the Sky. Switzer's death is a bizarrely complex story that is well-summarized on Wikipedia. Long story short, there was a dispute over a $50 reward for a lost hunting dog, and Switzer was shot and killed by Moses "Bud" Stiltz during a fight over the money. Switzer was just 31.

5. Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

The words: "This is no way to live!"

Groucho Marx
The story: Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx was widely known for comedy films with his brothers Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo. He also hosted You Bet Your Life. In 1977, he was hospitalized for pneumonia in Los Angeles, and quipped his last.

Groucho's brother Leonard (better known as "Chico") died in 1961. Chico's last words were instructions to his wife: "Remember, Honey, don't forget what I told you. Put in my coffin a deck of cards, a mashie niblick, and a pretty blonde."

6. Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

The words: "One never knows the ending. One has to die to know exactly what happens after death, although Catholics have their hopes."

Alfred Hitchcock
The story: Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense, directing film masterpieces including Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho, among others too numerous to mention. He died in April of 1980 in Los Angeles; his funeral was held at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church.

7. "Moe" Howard (Three Stooges) (1897-1975)

The words: "I've been really sick lately, so I'm sorry that I haven't answered yours and Ernie's letters, but I think about you daily."

MoeThe story: Harry Moses Horwitz is better known to us as Moe, the Stooge and vaudevillian. He died of lung cancer at age 77 while writing his autobiography (and apparently not enough letters); his wife died months later and they were buried together.

Moe had seen his brother Curly die tragically in 1952. Eddie Deezen's fantastic article The Final Years of Curly (of Three Stooges Fame) tells the story of Curly's life, including this passage:

By the end, Curly could only communicate with Moe by squeezing his hand, sometimes just by blinking his eyes. The hospital supervisor told Moe that Curly’s physical and mental deterioration was causing the hospital inconvenience and suggested that Moe move him to a mental institution. Moe adamantly refused.

Eddie also wrote about Shemp: The Forgotten Stooge.

8. Rod Serling (1924-1975)

The words (spoken): "That's what I anticipate death will be: a totally unconscious void in which you float through eternity with no particular consciousness about anything."

The words (written): "You can't kill this tough Jew." (Written from his deathbed to Twilight Zone colleague Owen Comora.)

Rod Serling
The story: Rodman Edward Serling is best known for his groundbreaking television show, The Twilight Zone -- he wrote 92 of the 156 episodes, contributed to other shows, and co-wrote the screenplay for Planet of the Apes, among many others. He was known for political activism, which he injected (often thinly-veiled) into his teleplays. He died aged just 50, after suffering several heart attacks and undergoing open-heart surgery in Rochester, New York.

9. Sid Vicious (1957-1979)

The words: "We had a death pact. I have to keep my half of the bargain. Please bury me next to my baby. Bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motor cycle boots. Goodbye."

Sid Vicious (graffiti)
The story: Simon John Ritchie used the stage name Sid Vicious, the notorious bassist for The Sex Pistols. In 1978 he allegedly killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Vicious/Ritchie killed himself with a heroin overdose the next year, aged just 21. His last words were left in a suicide note found in his jacket pocket. He was cremated, and reports differ about the fate of his ashes. The story is told in the film Sid and Nancy, and it's exactly as devastating as you'd expect.

10. John Wayne (1907-1979)

The words: "Of course I know who you are. You're my girl. I love you."

John Wayne
The Story: John Wayne (born Marion Robert Morrison) won an Oscar for True Grit in 1970, and starred in more than 150 films. He died of stomach cancer, after surviving lung cancer years earlier. His grave is marked with a quotation from his 1971 Playboy interview: "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."

11. Jackie Wilson (1934-1984)

The words: "My heart is crying, crying."

Jackie WilsonThe Story: Jackie Wilson was known as "Mr. Excitement," an R&B singer with soul and verve beyond his years. He collapsed onstage in 1975 while singing his hit song "Lonely Teardrops" as part of Dick Clark's Good Ol' Rock and Roll Revue. Having suffered a stroke, Wilson went in and out of a coma until 1984, when he died at the age of 49. Even when he briefly emerged from the coma, he was unable to speak, leaving his last words a snippet of song. His estate went bankrupt, and Wilson was buried in an unmarked grave. Michael Jackson dedicated his Thriller Album of the Year Grammy to Wilson the year Wilson died. In 1987, a fundraiser collected enough money to place a gravestone on his burial site in Detroit.

More Last Words

This post collects last words from the excellent volume Last Words of Notable People: Final Words of More Than 3500 Noteworthy People Throughout History (now also on Kindle) by Bill Brahms. You can get it from Brahms's website. It is notable not just as an amazing reference (this is a big book!), but as a reference book promoted by former mental_floss writer John Green. Green is a collector of last words, and Brahms's volume collects a series of (disputed) last words of François Rabelais, which are quoted in Green's novel Looking for Alaska.

Follow Chris Higgins on Twitter for more stories like this one.

(Note: all images via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license or out of copyright.)

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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