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February 3, 1959: The Day the Music Died

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On February 3, 1959, a plane crashed shortly after taking off from Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all four people aboard: pilot Roger Peterson and musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. The date became known as The Day the Music Died.

Charles Hardin Holley was born in Lubbock, Texas in 1936. He was only five years old when he earned his first money for singing, $5 at a local talent show. He formed a band in high school that performed on local radio and the country music circuit. They recorded several country songs for Decca in Nashville, but failed to find success. Holly (he dropped the "e" when his name was misspelled on the record contract) returned to Lubbock and played various venues, including opening for Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley. Elvis suggested Holly forget country music and start playing rock-and-roll. Holly's band, now known as The Crickets, recorded "That'll Be the Day" as a demo, which got them a contract with Coral/Brunswick records. A string of hit followed in 1957 and '58, including "Peggy Sue" and "Oh Boy". Holly wrote the songs, but had to share credit on some with producer Norman Petty. Holly split from Petty and The Crickets in October of 1958. Legal hassles following the breakup led to money problems, which led to Holly signing onto a winter tour in late 1958. By then he had married Maria Elena Santiago, a girl he proposed to on their first date. Holly's life story was detailed in the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story. Holly was 22 years old when he died.

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Richie Valens was only 17 years old when he died. Born Richard Steven Valenzuela in southern California, he learned to play guitar at age eleven. Valens was influenced by Mexican folk songs, country music on the radio, and singing cowboy movies. He played for school assemblies and parties in high school. Valens joined a band called The Silhouettes and had locally steady work. A talent agent spotted him and brought him into Keen Records for an audition. The instrumental he played for that audition evolved into his first hit, "Come On Let's Go". It sold half a million copies in 1958. Valens' followup single was "Donna", a song written for his girlfriend, with a Mexican folk song called "La Bamba" on the flip side. Both songs were riding high on the charts when Valens signed on for a tour with Buddy Holly and two other acts. Valens life was the subject of the 1987 movie La Bamba.

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Jiles Perry Richardson recorded and toured under the name The Big Bopper. He was the oldest of the plane crash victims at 28. Richardson grew up in Texas where he was active in school music programs. He studied pre-law in college, then dropped out to work full-time as a radio disc jockey. He once stayed on the air for five straight days, breaking the record for continuous broadcasting. Richardson also served a stint in the army, married, and fathered a daughter. He took the name The Big Bopper for a radio show. According to some sources, The Big Bopper was the first person to use the phrase "music video". He was in the process of promoting a video business when he died. Meanwhile, Richardson was busy writing songs. He wrote 'White Lighting", a hit for George Jones, and "Running Bear", recorded by Johnny Preston. The Big Bopper recorded "Chantilly Lace" in 1958, which went to #6 nationally. The success of "Chantilly Lace" led to a slot on a winter tour with Buddy Holly.

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Valens, Richardon, and Holly were on tour with a show called "The Winter Dance Party Tour" with Dion and the Belmonts. The tour bus was so cold and miserable that one band member reportedly developed frostbite. Buddy Holly had had enough, and decided to charter a plane in Clear Lake to fly to Fargo, North Dakota for the next gig. Dwyer Flying Service was hired for $36 a seat, and the plane was ready to leave after the show at the Surf Ballroom. Waylon Jennings, a backup singer for the show, relinquished his seat on the plane to Richardson because he was running a fever. Another backup singer, Tommy Allsup, lost his chance to fly in a coin flip with Valens.

When Holly learned that Jennings wasn't going to fly, he said, "Well, I hope your old bus freezes up." Jennings responded, "Well, I hope your plane crashes." This friendly banter of friends would haunt Jennings for years.

The pilot, 21-year-old Roger Peterson, was not qualified to fly on instruments alone. The weather had been clear earlier, but a storm warning had been issued. Neither Peterson nor Dwyer Flying Service was aware of the weather alert. A blinding snowstorm enveloped the plane soon after takeoff, and it spun into the ground. Jerry Dwyer, owner of the plane was concerned that it hadn't landed in Fargo by morning. After the fog cleared, he searched by plane and found the crash about a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. You can see photos of the crash aftermath, but be warned there are bodies visible. All three musicians were thrown from the plane. The plane had to be cut to extract the pilot.

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Holly and Richardson both left pregnant wives behind. Maria Holly had a miscarriage shortly afterward. Born three months after the plane crash, J.P. Richardson Jr. performs under the name The Big Bopper Jr. He plays the role of his father in a tribute show called The Dance Party Tour.

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Buddy Holly and the Crickets inspired the names of both bands The Beatles and The Hollies. The 1971 song American Pie by Don McLean was written about the events of February 3rd, 1959. Candace Rich provides us with an explanation of the lyrics. The town of Clear Lake expects crowds of thousands to commemorate the anniversary of the first rock-and-roll plane crash. The community held concerts and a symposium with some of the victim's family members over the past few days. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designated the Surf Ballroom as one of its national landmarks. Holly, Valens, and Richardson had extremely short musical careers by today's standards, but their music and influences live on.

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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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