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Groucho's Threat Against Nixon & 9 More Marx Brothers Stories

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by David Holzel

They were the bad boys of Broadway and, as the film record shows, of Hollywood as well. Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo Marx, with their now iconic names and personas left a mark on the culture much greater than the sum of their work. As The Four Marx Brothers (Gummo left the team early on, replaced by baby brother Zeppo), they made five major films between The Cocoanuts in 1929 and Duck Soup in 1933. Sans Zeppo, they appeared together in another eight pictures through 1950.

They grew up poor in New York City, sons of an immigrant family that already had made inroads in show business. Oddly for showbiz Jews of that era, the Marx Brother kept their last names, but changed their first names. Here are 10 lesser known lessons about their lives.

1. There would have been six.

There was a sixth Marx brother, although he actually was the first. Manfred Marx was born in 1885 and died in infancy, probably of tuberculosis, according to The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia, by Glenn Mitchell. The oldest surviving brother, Leo aka Leonard aka Chico, was born in 1887.

harpo-marx.jpg2. Harpo knew a bad name when he was given one.

While all the brothers became known by their more famous show business names, only Harpo changed his given name. His German-Jewish immigrant parents originally named him Adolph, which, long before the rise of that other Adolf, Harpo Americanized to Arthur.

3. Here's your dialect, what's your hurry?

As was common on the vaudeville circuit, the early Marxes portrayed ethnic stereotypes. Chico was the Italian, a persona he never dropped. Harpo was an "Irish boob," reports Simon Louvish in his Marx biography, Monkey Business. Groucho's character was sometimes Dutch, sometimes German.

That changed on May 7, 1915, according to Stefan Kanfer's biography Groucho. That was the day German submarines torpedoed and sank the passenger ship Lusitania. Between the afternoon and evening shows, when news of the attack reached the theater, Groucho's accent metamorphosed from German to Yiddish. Eventually Groucho dropped the accent entirely.

4. A Day at the Farm

Raised in the Upper East Side German ghetto of Yorkville, the Marxes were as urban as they came. That helps to explain why they made such lousy farmers. When conscription was instituted during World War I, materfamilias Minnie Marx learned that farmers were exempt from the draft. She promptly purchased a 27-acre homestead in La Grange, Illinois, and moved the family there.

In a farce equal to their best work, the Marxes started a poultry farm. Each night, rats made off with the day's eggs, Kanfer writes. The Selective Service finally caught up with the Marxes in 1917. One by one the brothers were rejected. Only Gummo, who had been part of the act, was drafted -- but spent the war serving in Illinois. Zeppo, the youngest brother, then joined the team.

5. Filler up?

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An unknown Marilyn Monroe made one of her first screen appearances, a walk-on, in the Marxes' final film together, Love Happy (1950). The production was so short of funds that the filmmakers had to resort to the little-used tactic of product placement to pay the bills. Kool cigarettes and Mobil Oil bought advertising space, according to Mitchell. In one gag, Harpo is seen riding a series of Mobil flying horses across a neon billboard.

6. "Take a letter."

Although Groucho was forced by his mother to quit school at age 13 and go to work, he was the most intellectually inclined of the brothers. In 1964, the Library of Congress sought to obtain Groucho's extensive correspondence with show-business pals, friends and family. Groucho even exchanged letters with President Harry S Truman, Mitchell writes, "with whom [he] seems to have enjoyed a surprising rapport."

7. Speaking of presidents

Calvin Coolidge was in the audience one night to see the Marxes' Broadway show Animal Crackers, according to historian David Greenberg, author of Calvin Coolidge. Noticing the president, who enjoyed sleep as liberally as his politics were conservative, Groucho cracked from the stage, "Isn't it past your bedtime, Calvin?"

8. Arthur Marx and the Round Table

Although Groucho possessed literary aspirations, it was the semi-literate Harpo who found a welcome seat at the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Invited by drama critic Alexander Woollcott, Harpo, "who sat, listened, played cards, and who was at ease anywhere," writes Louvish, survived "unscathed" what brother Groucho described as "sort of an intellectual slaughterhouse."

9. Getting Thalberg's Attention, 101

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The Marxes praised MGM's Irving Thalberg as the greatest studio exec they ever worked with "“ the man who brought A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races to the screen before his untimely death in 1936 at age 37.

In the beginning, their attempts just to meet with the notoriously unavailable wunderkind resembled a Marx Brothers film. They arrived punctually for appointments, only to find Thalberg's office shut. Once, they tried to signal their presence by blowing cigar smoke under his door and yelling "Fire!" After they finally made it into his office, Thalberg excused himself to consult with Louis B. Mayer. When he returned after an interminable delay, he found the brothers "squatting nude, roasting potatoes in his display fireplace," Kanfer writes. Several weeks later, Thalberg kept the Marxes waiting again. "On this occasion they barricaded his door with heavy filing cabinets," according to Kanfer. "These took an hour to remove. Never again did the Marx Brothers cool their heels in his waiting room."

10. Nixon's the One

Groucho spent his career deflating the rich, the pompous and the clueless "“ and got away with it. But in 1971, a thoughtless comment put him in duck soup with America's most humorless president.

Lunching with reporters from Take One, a San Francisco Bay-area underground newspaper, Groucho was asked, "Do you think there's any hope for Nixon?" Kanfer writes. Groucho, his judgment dimmed perhaps by cocktails and his own advancing age, shot back, "No, I think the only hope for this country is Nixon's assassination."

By the next day the wire services had the quote, and so did the FBI, which promptly investigated him. Kanfer writes, "The octogenarian was officially listed in File No. CO 1297009207 as a potential threat to the life of the chief executive."

Writer David Holzel keeps a 17-inch-tall plaster statue of Groucho in his office at all times. Groucho unwittingly also helped inspire David's ezine, The Jewish Angle. His last mental_floss story was a celebration of Franklin Pierce.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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