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6 TV Movie Facts (Including some dirt on Steven Spielberg)

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If you never get tired of watching Meredith Baxter burn her "husband's" clothes as Betty Broderick in A Woman Scorned, or if you had trouble sleeping after watching the nuclear holocaust portrayed in The Day After, then this week's TVHolic glimpse into classic "made for TV movies" should be right up your alley.

1. The Networks Couldn't Get Enough of "˜em

Picture 31.pngNBC pioneered the idea of made-for-TV movies with 1964's See How They Run, but ABC picked up that ball and ran with it. The network's "Tuesday Movie of the Week" quickly expanded to include the "Wednesday Movie of the Week." Eventually movies of the week were being produced at such a rate that the network aired them on any day there was a timeslot available. The made-for-TV genre was filmdom's version of summer stock; it gave both TV actors on hiatus from their regular series and B -list (and lower) movie stars an opportunity to keep their face in front of the public. It also allowed them to spread their acting "wings" and play characters contrary to their public image (Q.E.D. Archie Bunker's little goil Sally Struthers as a battered wife in Intimate Strangers, and Elizabeth Montgomery as axe-wielding Lizzie Borden.)

2. It's where Steven Spielberg Debuted

Long before anyone had heard of "road rage," Dennis Weaver experienced it on the small screen when he innocently passed a tanker truck that was spewing exhaust in front of him on a remote road. Apparently the trucker took this to be an insult to the size of his Peterbilt, and he proceeded to alternately tailgate, blast his horn at, and nudge Weaver's Plymouth Valiant in a bizarre cat-and-mouse game. Duel was directed by a 23-year-old guy named Steven Spielberg, his first feature-length film. The made-for-TV version was such a ratings success that several additional scenes were filmed after the fact to lengthen the film for theatrical release in Europe and Australia.

3. Linda Blair Gets Born Again

Linda Blair first gained fame as the pea soup-spewing Regan in The Exorcist, but for dedicated couch potatoes, she'll always be remembered for her many poignant appearances in made-for-TVers. Her pièce de résistance was 1974's Born Innocent, in which she portrayed an incorrigible runaway who ends up in the juvenile prison system. Harsh punishment for a non-violent crime, but the idea was to send a "scared straight" sort of message to teen girls on the edge. Unfortunately the message some miscreants got instead was "hey, let's re-enact the controversial shower scene on some random stranger!"

4. James Brolin Has Something of an acting Career?

Before he became Mr. Barbra Streisand, audiences first got to know Brolin as the motorcycle-riding renegade doctor on Marcus Welby, MD, but Jim eventually became a fixture in the made-for-TV film world. In 1972's A Short Walk to Daylight, he played a New York City cop who had to lead a subway car full of disparate strangers out of the crumbled underground tunnels after an earthquake. One year later he starred in Trapped, a classic man-against-beast film in which he plays a mugging victim left unconscious in a department store restroom. When he regains consciousness, the store is closed and is being patrolled by a pack of vicious Dobermans. Will he escape? Will he even survive? Of course he will, but the 90 minutes before he triumphed kept us on the edge of our collective seat.

5. Bad Ronald is full of Bad Ideas

Take one nerdy high school kid who is taunted by a little neighborhood girl. He shoves her in anger. Girl hits head on a cinder block and dies. Boy runs home to mother and tearfully describes the accident. Does Mom call the police? No, she has Son break out his carpentry tools and wall himself inside an inner room in their house. This was the premise for Bad Ronald, which starred Scott Jacoby, who TV fans may recognize as Dorothy's son on The Golden Girls.

6. Alice in Television Land

The 1971 book Go Ask Alice was purported to be the real diary of a shy teenaged girl in a new town who found popularity and an instant coterie of friends once she partook in the taboo world of drugs. The book was banned in many high school libraries, which only helped to increase its popularity and encourage Hollywood to come a-calling. The 1973 TV film starred Jamie Smith-Jackson as Alice and a hilariously bespectacled William Shatner as her clueless father. Despite the film and book's claim that the story was based on a real-life diary, many years later Mormon youth counselor Beatrice Sparks admitted that she was the book's author and that it was a work of fiction.

Let's see a show of hands "“ how many of you would tune in to TVLand if they started showing some classic Movies of the Week instead of reality programming? And please feel free to mention your favorite made-for-TVer; you'll probably jog many other reader's memories in the process.

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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]