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8 Celebrity Tactics For Responding to Fan Mail

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In the days before the Internet, writing a letter to a celebrity and sending it out via snail mail was almost a rite of passage. Nearly everyone did it. As a kid, I wrote letters to my favorite athletes requesting autographs, and was always thrilled—and a little shocked—when I received a response back.

But now, celebrities typically connect with their fans via their own websites or on Twitter—so the magical quality of a written letter sent to a fan has largely been forgotten. Luckily, sites like Letters of Note (where many of these came from) are perfect for documenting these delightful little brushes with fame. Here are a few approaches stars have taken when writing back.

1. Send A Handwritten Letter (Sort Of)

I first wrote about this one a few years back. Steve Martin was once known to respond to his fans with a hilarious form letter that mocked the entire idea of the fan-celebrity letter exchange by pretending not to even be a form letter.

He even signed this highly personal response to a fan named Jerry with a postscript that recalls a warm memory they once shared.

2. Check All That Apply

Whereas Steve Martin’s form letter was a witty way of replying to his fans, science-fiction author Robert Heinlein used a standardized checklist to seemingly vent about the repetitious nature of the mail he got from readers. The letter is really just a collection of things he might potentially have to say in response to the fan’s letter, so that the appropriate one could simply be marked and sent back. The list of potential responses includes:

- You say that you have enjoyed my stories for years. Why did you wait until you disliked one story before writing to me?

- Don’t plan to call at our home; we work very long hours every day of the year.

- It is not just for a student’s grade to depend on the willingness or capacity of a stranger to help him with his homework. I am ready to discuss this with your teacher, principal, or school board.

- Please do not write to me again.

But it also includes this nice thought:

- Your letter was most welcome!—loaded with friendliness and with no requests or demands. You suggested that no answer was expected but I must tell you how much it pleased me. I wish you calm seas, following winds, and a happy voyage through life.

3. Break Their Hearts And Blame Your Wife


When a teenage girl wrote Conan O’Brien asking if he’d join her at her high school prom, he sent back a handwritten response that included the following line:

Unfortunately, I got married recently and my wife doesn't allow me to go to proms anymore with cute 16-year old girls.

4. Have Your Wife Break Their Heart

After one Sinclair Lewis fan stepped over the line, his wife took the liberty of responding directly. The fact that she signed her name at the end, then threw in “(Mrs. Sinclair Lewis to you.)” is pretty great.

5. Call Them A Complete Moron

The Cleveland Browns aren’t exactly a “celebrity,” but this response is so amazing that it deserves to be included. Back in the 70s, a Cleveland Browns season ticket holder wrote the team to inform them of the fact that fans at the stadium had begun the habit of creating paper airplanes out of game programs and flying them through the crowd at the stadium. His letter included this note of caution:

Please be advised that since you are in a position to control or terminate such action on the part of fans, I will hold you responsible for any injury sustained by any person in my party attending one of your sporting events.

In response, someone inside the Browns organization sent back this simple reply:

Attached is a letter we received on November 19, 1974. I feel that you should be aware that some a**hole is signing your name to stupid letters.

As an added bonus, then Browns owner Art Modell is copied on the letter.

6. Just Show Up At Their School


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If you write your favorite actor a letter and he writes you back, you’ll surely be excited. If he instead just surprises you at your school fully dressed up as his most famous character, you may skip past excitement and go straight to shock. That’s what happened to one London school girl after she wrote Johnny Depp—who was shooting a Pirates of the Caribbean film nearby at the time—to ask for his assistance in staging a mutiny against her teachers.

7. Write Back to All of Them

After his longtime comedic partner Oliver Hardy passed away, the great Stan Laurel devoted much of his remaining years to personally responding to the many fan letters he received. Today, the website Letters From Stan exists to honor Laurel’s amazing comedic achievements and serve as an archive for the many responses he provided to his fans. To highlight just how different things are today, the site also explains that Laurel’s phone number was readily available in the phone book and it wasn’t uncommon for fans to call or stop by his home.

8. Write Back to None of Them

Ringo Starr was once known for responding to many of his fans. But a few years ago, he posted this video on YouTube imploring his fans to stop sending him mail.

After being criticized for it, he explained that the video was "in direct response to an inordinate amount of items which have recently appeared for sale on E-Bay, and to those that repeatedly send cards and items to be signed."

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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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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.

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