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Happy Birthday Hitch! 4 Alfred Hitchcock Secrets

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Today's Alfred Hitchcock's birthday. But between all the international invasions, record breaking sports events, and alleged love childs of politicians, no one seems to be giving the Master of Suspense any love. Here are 4 things everyone ought to know about Hitch.

1. He had lots of phobias (including eggs and jail cells!)

Hitchcock had a lot of fears. The most unusual of these phobias was probably his fear of breakfast foods. More specifically: chicken eggs. The oozy yellow yolks, specifically, freaked him out. He once said,

I'm frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes . . . have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I've never tasted it."

His daughter, though, said that he was known to enjoy a good soufflé. Oddly enough, Hitchcock also disliked police, most likely due to a childhood encounter he had with them.

His dad thought it would be good to teach him a lesson and sent him down to the local police station with a note in hand. He gave the note to the cop on duty, who read it and promptly locked little Hitch in the jail cell for 10 minutes. Later in life, he said the reason he never learned to drive was because he was so afraid of being pulled over by a policeman. But this may not have been true "“ other accounts say that he drove his daughter to school and church on numerous occasions.

2. He was one of the first to make cameo appearances

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Sir Hitchcock has 52 major films that have survived (one of his silent films from 1927 has been lost) and he makes cameo appearances in 37 of them. They are always extremely tiny parts "“ sometimes he's even just in crowd shot. Even in Lifeboat, which took place entirely on, yes, a lifeboat, he manages to show up: he appears in a newspaper ad for a weight loss product. Hitchcock struggled with his weight all of his life and had recently dropped quite a few pounds, so he used an older picture as the "before" shot and a current picture as the "after" shot. Lifeboat, by the way, holds the record for the smallest movie set ever.

Other directors that now pop up in their own films include Peter Jackson, Eli Roth, M. Night Shyamalan and Edgar Wright. Of course, there are lots of other directors who give themselves large parts in their own films, not just cameos: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, to name a few. Eventually, Hitchcock tried to get his cameos out of the way as early in the movie as possible "“ he felt that when viewers spent too much of the film trying to spot him in the background, it took away from the movie experience.

3. He popularized the MacGuffin

You might not know what the MacGuffin is by name, but you certainly know it: it's something used in a plot that helps to advance the story, but doesn't really matter for any other reason than to advance the story. For instance, Harrison Ford once told David Letterman that all of the objects in the Indiana Jones movies are basically MacGuffins. Yeah, they might have been searching for the Crystal Skull in the most recent one, but it doesn't really matter what they were searching for. All the object did was advance the storyline and allow Indiana Jones to have some adventures. The objects Harrison Ford mentioned were the Holy Grail in the last movie and the Sankara Stones in Temple of Doom. Sometimes, though, we don't even know what the MacGuffin is "“ like in Pulp Fiction, the MacGuffin is the unknown contents of the briefcase. We don't even know what's in there, but it's central to the whole storyline.

Anyway, Hitch used the concept in his 1935 film The 39 Steps and used the term, which may have been coined by a friend of his. "MacGuffin" has been common industry lingo ever since.

4. He tried to hide Cary Grant in Lincoln's Nose

north Lots of Hitchcock's films feature famous landmarks, although not always in the way he would have liked to use them. In North by Northwest, the climactic scene happens on Mount Rushmore. He wanted Cary Grant to hide out in Lincoln's nose, but have his pursuants discover him when he sneezes. Park officials refused to let this scene be filmed, finding it disrespectful. Supposedly, though, someone asked Hitch how he would feel if the situation was reversed and Lincoln was having a sneezing fit in the nostril of a giant likeness of Cary Grant. Apparently this made sense to him and he gave up trying to have the sneezing scene shot. Other appearances by landmarks are scattered throughout his movies - in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the climatic scene takes place at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Vertigo involves a scene at the Golden Gate Bridge and an important moment at Mission San Juan Bautista. Blackmail features the dome of the British Museum. Saboteur revolves around the Boulder Dam (which is now the Hoover Dam), Rockefeller Center and the Statue of Liberty.

If you haven't figured it out, we absolutely love Alfred Hitchcock in my house. In fact, he is probably the reason I like horror movies with a darkly wry sense of humor, We have movie posters of Rear Window and Vertigo framed in our living room. My husband is researching getting some sort of a Hitchcock-related tattoo. Yeah, we have a problem. Got any great Hitchcock facts that need to be shared, or Hitchcock obsessive behavior you'd like to own up to? We'd love to hear it in the comments below.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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]

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