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6 Great Marching Bands That Never Were

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Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back our Marching Band Correspondent, Auburn University's Steven Clontz! You may remember him from his first post, Marching to the Beat of a Different Slide Instrument, which explored variations on the trombone. Or his second, When Good Bands Go Bad. He's back today with the third in a series of four band-centric entries.

Marching band kind of gets the shaft in pop culture, with band geeks serving more often as the nerdy comic relief than leading roles. But in rare cases, someone will weave a story that can only be told by those who hold an instrument in their hand, and wear a shako on their head. So, I respectfully submit to the mental_floss community, the greatest marching bands in fiction. (As a courtesy, I'm excluding any bands that make an appearance on this page, which I wish I never stumbled upon.)

1. The East Great Falls High School Marching Band

american-pie.jpg"This one time, at band camp"¦" was the bane of my existence as a freshman in my high school marching band. Y'see, a little movie called American Pie was released in 1999, and barely a year later, I had the experience of going through my own first band camp ever. As soon as classes began, only a mere mention of my involvement in my school's marching band would be necessary to receive a chorus of "This one time, at band camp"¦" from anyone within earshot.

When I first saw American Pie, I was surprised that the marching band and Michelle, the character who coined that phrase, don't play a huge part in most of the first movie. But since then, American Pie has spawned two sequels, a slew of spin-off movies (including a whole movie about band camp), and an entire generation who associates band camp with the creepiest use for a flute I can think of. So I guess it rightfully deserves its place at the beginning of my list.

Incidentally, American Pie takes place in an alternate universe where people actually go away to a real backwoods summer camp for band. The name of this magical place is called Michigan, which may explain why an Alabama boy such as myself knows nothing of making s'mores in between music rehearsals. In my experience, band camp is nothing more than back-to-back rehearsals, all day, for seven or eight days in a row, followed by a few hours of sleep in my own bed. But perhaps some of you have had the pleasure of a more clichéd band camp experience?

2. The Bikini Bottom Marching Band

Maybe I was a little old to be watching cartoons starring a yellow filter-feeder on the bottom of the sea, even in 2001. But what I could not ignore was that Nickelodeon had just released an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants entitled simply, "Band Geeks".

The plot was your typical Spongebob fare. Squarepants' clarinet-toting, fun-squashing neighbor Squidward Tentacles had to pull a marching band together to perform in the annual Bubble Bowl in just a few days, because he could not bear to admit to his childhood rival Squilliam that he did not really have a band of his own to direct. And while the band performed pitifully at first, in the end they pulled together to support Squidward. The result of which, I am happy to say, can be viewed right now thanks to the wonderful World Wide Intertubes.

And it seems my love for this episode is not alone. According to my cousins Matt and Josh, "Band Geeks" was awarded the honor of being the number one "Nicktoon" ever, just recently. Also neat, their mother tells me that the singer of "Sweet Victory" is actually David Glen Eisley. After chiding me for my lack of Hair Band knowledge, she pointed me to another song he's done, Giuffria's Call To the Heart.

3. Atlanta A&T State University's Blue and Gold Marching Machine

Performing in a historically black college's marching band is a little different from my own band career. But thankfully, I can at least know sort of what it's like to be in a real Battle of the Bands, without fearing I might actually be attacked by one. And it's all thanks to the movie Drumline.

Drumline performed well at the box office, and critically too, with a score of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes. My friends in the band service fraternity Kappa Kappa Psi love it because it KKY is featured prominently. Also, of all the works featured in this article, it's the only one that actually presents marching band like it were just another sport. But I'm actually not a huge fan. Why, you ask? Not enough trombones. I can only pay attention to people banging on some overrated pots and pans for so long before I get bored. I'm still waiting for my coming-of-age story of a high school trumpet player with a heart of gold. But since Drumline is pretty much the only movie in that vein released"¦ ever?"¦ I may be waiting for a while.

4. The Wellsville High School Marching Squids

petepete.jpgI complete my Nickelodeon triumvirate (SpongeBob, Drumline star Nick Cannon of All-That fame, and this) with one of my all-time favorite shows, Pete & Pete. And of course, my favorite episode from the series, "Day of the Dot," would have to be dedicated to their high school marching band. Big Pete (as opposed to his younger brother, Little Pete) grows jealous when his best-friend-slash-obvious-romantic-interest Ellen is given the honor of dotting the "i" in Squid on the marching field. (This tradition is most likely borrowed from The Ohio State University Marching Band.)

At first, Big Pete is happy for Ellen. But things turn foul when she begins to spend more time with her marching partner, James Markle, Jr., than with him. In the end, Big Pete takes things into his own hands, and hijacks the halftime show to prove that there is one force even stronger than even that of a musical marching ensemble "“ the power of love. And while I normally wouldn't even condone breaking rank during a marching band performance, to this day I still have a crush on Alison Fanelli (the actress who played Ellen), so I'll let it all slide.

5. The Westview High School Scapegoat Marching Band

dinkle.gifMy first pair of marching shoes when I got to college were Dinkles. However, I'm sure the World's Greatest Band Director Dr. Harry L. Dinkle was vastly disappointed when my university band of choice decided to switch over to MTXs (Mark Time to the X-treme, dudes).

Okay okay, so I'm probably getting ahead of myself. For the uninitiated, Funky Winkerbean is the quintessential example of marching band in the funny pages. This was true particularly when the strip was first started back in 1972, and the story revolved around several students at Westview High. Notable band characters included Holly Budd, who could always be found walking around school in her majorette uniform, and the aforementioned Dr. Dinkle, the self-proclaimed best band director ever. Fellow band-ites like myself can relate to a fear consistently replicated in a running gag from Funky Winkerbean - every band competition (except for the first one) occurs during a raging monsoon.

In 1992, cartoonist Batuik decided to relaunch the comic, moving it forward four years in time, so all the high school students had now graduated and were living the lives of grown-ups. At the same time, the strip began to take a more serious tone, tackling many serious issues, such as suicide, dyslexia, and most notably, cancer. However, this final point has brought me some hope. As I understand it, Funky relaunched again only a few weeks ago after Lisa died of breast cancer. The story now follows the next generation as they go through high school. So maybe, just maybe, next time I pick up the funnies I'll be greeted by the World's Greatest Band Director once again.

6. The River City Boys Band

musicman.jpgOur list concludes with the most eminent marching band in all of cinema, Professor Harold Hill's boys band. The boys of River City, enraptured by the opening of a new pool hall, needed something to keep them from turning down the steep slippery path of billards-induced temptation.

Or so Dr. Hill would have had them believe. In reality he was just a con artist who"¦ why am I even explaining this? The Music Man is by many counts, one of the greatest musicals of all time, receiving six Tonies, an Oscar, and a slew of other nominations. I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who doesn't know one of the show's most memorable songs, "Seventy-Six Trombones (in the Big Parade)." If you're one such poor soul, please, go out and rent the 1962 movie adaption now. Then you'll understand why I'm having so much trouble mastering my Elementary Spanish class since our instructor seems to insist on using Professor Hill's "Think Method."

That's all for this time. Have a bwayno day, guys!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]