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Happy 50th Anniversary, Twilight Zone!

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You are about to enter a dimension of sight and sound ... of a column requested by a reader. That's a signpost up ahead ... next stop, TV-Holic's look at The Twilight Zone.

1. The Truth about the Theme Song

Much like the "dum-de-DUM-dum" Dragnet theme, the opening notes of The Twilight Zone theme song have become a pop culture icon. Any time something frightening or inexplicable is mentioned in conversation, odds are someone will intone the iconic four repetitive notes composed by Marius Constant. The French avant-garde composer was never commissioned to write the theme song; it was instead cobbled together from two different short "cues" he had previously written for CBS. "Etrange 3 (Strange No. 3)" and "Milieu 2 (Middle No. 2)" were two different short pieces Constant had written and recorded for the CBS music library in 1959 with a small ensemble featuring two guitars, bongo drums, a saxophone and French horns. When The Twilight Zone was picked up for a second season, the show's producers were looking to replace the original Bernard Hermann theme, which CBS execs had described as "too down." By splicing together the two rarely-heard short pieces composed by Constant which were already owned by CBS, the network managed to create a theme song legend without having to pay a truckload of royalty fees.

2. Rod Serling Was a Boxer, a Paratrooper and a Peabody Winner (all before the show!)

Rod Serling, the host and brainchild behind The Twilight Zone, holds the record as the recipient of the most Emmy Awards for dramatic writing. Serling grew up in Binghamton, New York, and served as a U.S. Army paratrooper in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The combination of a small-town childhood plus the horrors that he saw during the war influenced his writing. After graduating from Antioch College, he started penning scripts for shows such as Kraft Television Theatre, Studio One and Lux Video Theater in the then-fledgling TV market. Serling had been a fairly successful boxer during his time in the military, and he drew from that experience to write a teleplay called "Requiem for a Heavyweight" for Playhouse 90. "Requiem" won a Peabody Award, the first given to an individual script, and suddenly Serling had a "name" in the industry.

3. The Actors Only Got One Take

Every Twilight Zone fan has his or her favorite episodes, and there are a few which are universally popular and always featured in marathons. Interestingly enough, many of the actors in these pieces, when interviewed decades after the fact, confessed that they weren't particularly proud of their performances. The Twilight Zone had a budget, just like any other series, and often the bulk of the money per episode had to be spent on sets and special effects. There was no luxury of multiple retakes until the actor felt just right about a particular scene. A sub-par performance wasn't a matter of concern in most episodic television of that era, but, as William Shatner later mentioned in an interview, at that time a Twilight Zone appearance was just another job—no one ever suspected that these episodes would be aired over and over (and over!) again for years to come.

4. William Shatner Still Gets Asked About It

William Shatner was the star in one of the fan favorite episodes, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." He portrayed salesman Robert Wilson who was traveling on an airplane for the first time since his release from a sanitarium after a nervous breakdown. All was well en route, unless Wilson looked out the window; there he'd see a gremlin on the wing. Of course, every time he alerted someone to the situation the gremlin would jump out of sight. In the end, Wilson is removed from the flight in a straitjacket, but after he's carted away it is noted that the outer covering of one engine has unusual damage, as if something had been clawing at it. Shatner says that even today when he flies a fan will occasionally recognize him and ask "Do you see anything on the wing?"

5. The Burgess Meredith Episode

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Depending on your age, the name Burgess Meredith usually conjures up either The Penguin on Batman or trainer Mickey Goldmill in Rocky. The versatile actor with the unruly hair also appeared on The Twilight Zone several times, most memorably in "Time Enough at Last." Meredith's Henry Bemish was a meek and mild-mannered bank teller who was brow-beaten by his boss and his wife, and who loved nothing more than to lose himself in a good book. One day during his lunch break, Bemish retreats to the bank vault in order to have some uninterrupted reading time. Suddenly the vault shakes so violently that Henry is knocked unconscious. When he awakens and ventures outside he discovers that the world as he knew it has been destroyed by an H-Bomb, and he is the last survivor on Earth. After wandering around, trying to comprehend the situation, he stumbles upon the ruins of a public library. As he slowly realizes that he now has the time and the resources to read to his heart's content, he stumbles and his glasses fall off his face and shatter on the ground. In the original story, Henry Bemish's specs were strictly reading glasses, but Rod Serling had Burgess Meredith wear them throughout the episode in order to make him look more "bookish."

6. The Isolation Episode

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In "Where Is Everybody?" Earl Holliman, dressed in an Air Force jumpsuit, finds himself stranded in a seemingly deserted town. He doesn't know where he is or how he got there, and every place he goes gives hints that someone was recently there (food cooking on a stove in a restaurant and burning cigarettes in ashtrays, for example). Feeling more and more isolated and panicked, he wanders the streets, calling out to someone, anyone and finally collapses at a street crossing, hopelessly pressing the WALK button. In reality, Holliman was astronaut-in-training Mike Ferris who'd been confined to a sensory deprivation chamber for three weeks to test his reactions to complete isolation. Holliman stated that the hardest part of this role was having to constantly talk to himself and make it sound convincing. He never really felt a sense of isolation, since the film crew was always within his sight.

7. The Episode Referenced on The Simpsons

Billy Mumy was just six years old when he starred in "It's a Good Life," but he already had over a dozen acting credits on his resume. His freckle-faced fresh-scrubbed look made him the perfect Anthony Fremont "“ all-American kid on the surface, evil spoiled brat in actuality. For some reason, Anthony has amazing mental capabilities and is in complete control of his small Ohio town. He controls the weather and which foodstuffs are available at the local grocery store. He has eliminated electricity and automobiles, and for all the few remaining inhabitants know, he has also destroyed the rest of the outside world. Everyone walks on eggshells around Anthony lest they displease him; earning the wrath of Anthony means being banished to the "cornfield." His punishment for one man who dared defy him was to turn him into a jack-in-the-box, a scene which was recreated in a Hallowe'en episode of The Simpsons.

What are your favorite Twilight Zone episodes? Remember to be very, very good when commenting—I don't want to have to send you to the cornfield.

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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]