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6 Classical Scandals Straight from the Tabloids

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1. First Conductor Dies from Conducting

You probably haven't heard of the poor guy, but Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632"“1687) was the first documented conductor. Before him, most musical groups just followed the lead of their first violinist or their keyboard player.

Lully was the first musician to use a baton. He was also the first musician to ever die by baton.

Let's rewind back to his technique though. Following in the tradition of other soft walking leaders, Lully carried around a really big stick: one that was six feet long, which he pounded on the ground in time to the music. Unfortunately, this enormous staff proved to be his undoing. One day, while merrily beating time (in a concert to celebrate the king's return to health), he stuck the wood into his foot by mistake. He developed gangrene and died. Not a good role model for conductors worldwide.

2. Haydn Nearly Gets Castrated

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732"“1809) was the father of the symphony as we know it. During more than 30 years of experimentation, he came up with the form that has influenced composers to this day. But as a little boy, Haydn was known for something else—his beautiful voice. He was the star soprano in his church choir. As he got older and his voice was about to change, his choirmaster came to him with a little proposition. If he would consent to a small operation, he could keep his beautiful soprano voice forever. Haydn readily agreed and was just about to undergo the surgery when his father found out and put a stop to the whole thing.

3. Paganini Allegedly Sells Soul to Devil! (Fetches Good Price)

paganini.jpgThe Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini (1782"“1840) was one of the most astounding virtuosos of all time. He had amazing technique and enormous passion. He also promoted himself shamelessly, doing tricks to astonish his audience. Often before a concert he would saw partway through three of the four strings on his violin. In performance, those three strings broke, forcing him to play an entire piece on one string. Rumors flew that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil in order to play so well. Sometimes Paganini would order the lights dimmed while he played particularly spooky music, at which point the rumors and the mood would form a perfect storm and everybody would faint. (It didn't take much to make an audience faint in those days.)

4. Cross-Dressing Berlioz Nearly Snuffs Out Rival

The renowned French composer Hector Berlioz (1803"“1869) was, among other things, wacky. While away in Rome studying on a scholarship, he heard that his beloved girlfriend, Camille, back in Paris, had started seeing another guy. Furious, he resolved to kill his rival. But he needed to disguise himself. So he bought a gun, put on a dress, and boarded a train for Paris. Halfway home, however, Berlioz chickened out and threw himself into the Mediterranean. Luckily for us, and for music, he was fished out (minus the gun).

5. Liszt's Lucky Fans Receive Canine Surprise

liszt.jpgThe Hungarian Franz Liszt (1811"“1886) was a virtuoso in the tradition of Paganini. He played the piano and created a sensation throughout Europe. Everywhere he played, women swooned, and Liszt was treated like one of the world's first rock stars. In fact, the word Lisztomania was coined during his lifetime. He received so many requests for locks of his hair, though, that it was impossible for him to keep up with demand. Finally, the young musician stumbled upon the perfect solution— he bought a dog and snipped off patches of fur to send to his admirers, an unexpected use for man's best friend.

6. Peter Tchaikovsky Nearly Loses His Head

The magnificent Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840"“1893) was yet another in the line of geniuses who sometimes came unhinged. Tchaikovsky loved to compose, but he hated to conduct, mainly because he was paralyzed with a fear that his head might fall off. Unfortunately, conducting opportunities came up way too often for him—including the gala opening concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891. Neurotic to the core, Tchaikovsky always conducted with one hand while using the other to keep a firm grip on his chin.

Ed Note: This list was adapted and embellished from Condensed Knowledge, available for purchase here. 

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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]