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12 Things You Might Not Know About A Christmas Story

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Which Oscar-winning star wanted to play Ralphie's dad? Which actor went on to a seedy career in the adult film industry? Can you really get your tongue stuck to a metal pole? Here are a few tidbits to tide you over until the 24-hour Christmas Eve marathon on TBS.

1. Jack Nicholson was very interested in playing Ralphie's dad. But casting (and paying) Jack would have meant doubling the budget, so he was removed from consideration. Director Bob Clark — who didn't know Nicholson was interested at the time — says Darrin McGavin was the perfect choice.

2. What does Porky's, the raunchy '80s teen sex movie, have to do with a wholesome film like A Christmas Story? Bob Clark directed both—Porky's in 1982 and A Christmas Story in 1983. If Porky's hadn't given him the professional and financial success he needed, he wouldn't have been able to bring A Christmas Story to the big screen.

3. For anyone keeping count, Ralphie says he wants the Red Ryder BB Gun 28 times throughout the course of the movie. That's approximately once every three minutes and 20 seconds.

4. Peter Billingsley, AKA Ralphie, has been good friends with Vince Vaughn since they both appeared in the CBS Schoolbreak Special (their version of the after-school special) in the early '90s. He doesn't do much acting these days, but he did make a surprise appearance on the "Vince Vaughn Wild West Comedy Show" in Memphis, Tenn., in 2005. Peter's doing quite well for himself, though. He was the executive producer of Iron Man and had a brief bit as William Ginter Riva. He also executive produced Four Christmases (which he had a cameo in), The Break-Up, and the TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son.

tongue.jpg5. Mythbusters tested whether it was possible to get your tongue truly stuck on a piece of cold metal. Guess what? It is. So don't triple dog dare your best friend to try it.

6. Scott Schwartz, who played Flick (who stuck his tongue to the frozen flagpole), was submerged in the adult film industry for a number of years. He got out in 2000 to try to become a mainstream actor again, but I can't say he's done much of note: Community College ("A love story between four dudes and their ability to get free drinks") and Skinwalker, which starred ex-MTV veejay Jesse Camp, if that tells you anything. Joey Buttafuoco is in it, too, and gets billing over our poor Flick.

7. Next time you're in Cleveland, you can visit the original house from the movie. It was sold on eBay in 2004 for $150,000. Collector Brian Jones bought the house and restored it to its movie glory and stocked it up with some of the original props from the film, including Randy's snowsuit.

8. Director Bob Clark got the idea for the movie when he was driving in the car with a date. He heard Jean Shepherd on the radio doing a reading of his short story collection, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," which included some bits that eventually ended up in A Christmas Story. Clark said he drove around the block for an hour until the program ended, which his date was not too happy about.

9. The Wonder Years was inspired in part by A Christmas Story. In fact, in one of the last few episodes, Peter Billingsley appeared as one of Kevin Arnold's roommates.

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10. The real Red Ryder BB Gun was first made in 1938 and was named after a comic strip cowboy. You can still buy it today for the low, low price of $44.99. But the original wasn't quite the same as the one in the movie; it lacked the compass and sundial that both the Jean Shepard story and the movie call for. Special versions had to be made just for A Christmas Story.

11. While we're talking shopping, you know you want the leg lamp. Put it in your window! Be the envy of your neighbors! It's a Major Award! You can buy it here, but if you're not feeling quite so flamboyant you can get a replica that serves as a nightlight for $14.99. The people who own the house also run a gift shop, and they sell pretty much everything you could possibly want from the movie: the decoder pin ($7.99), Lifebuoy soap ($3.99), the leg lamp variants mentioned above, and even pieces of the original house.

12. There are two little-talked-about sequels. The first one was a 1988 made-for-TV movie, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Jerry O'Connell played 14-year-old Ralphie, who is excited about his first job—a furniture mover. Of course, it ends up being awful, and it might make him miss the annual family vacation at Mr. Hopnoodle's lakeside cabins.

My Summer Story, AKA It Runs in the Family, debuted on the big screen in 1994. Kieran Culkin plays Ralphie, Mary Steenburgen is his mom, and Charles Grodin is his dad. I'm not sure if it's because of this movie or A Christmas Story, but whenever our trio of dogs are running around in a pack, my husband always yells, "It's the Bumpus Hounds!"

Merry Christmas! Don't shoot your eye out (kid).

This story originally appeared in 2008.

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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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