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6 Controversial Christmas Carols

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When you think of Christmas, you probably envision a row of cherry-faced carolers standing on your doorstep, holding candles and swaying to the soft, delicate notes of classic Christmas songs. But at certain points in history, some carols might have gotten those festive vocalists chased out of the neighborhood.

1. Elvis Presley's "White Christmas" (1957)

It seems that every major musical talent falls into the trap of doing a Christmas album, and the King of Rock 'n Roll was no exception. Elvis' 1957 Christmas album caused a huge firestorm of controversy for a man who was already in hot water with every decency and obscenity group in the country—and his rendition of Irvin Berlin's "White Christmas" was at the top of their "To Hate" list. Even Berlin himself, after hearing a recording, ordered that the song be banned from the airwaves. Radio stations refused to play it, and one disc jockey in Portland lost his job for ignoring his station's "White Christmas" embargo. When asked if he'd play the song, Los Angeles DJ Dick Whittinghill replied, "That's like having [stripper] Tempest Storm deliver Christmas gifts to my kids."

2. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure's "O Holy Night" (1847)

One of the most sung and universal Christmas carols actually caused quite a stir when it first hit people's ears around the holidays. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, a French poet and commissionaire of wines, was asked by his parish priest in 1847 to write a poem for Christmas mass. The poet was so moved by the words that flowed out of him that he decided to set his poem to music, with help from a musician friend by the name of Adolphe Charles Adams. The song gained popularity, but was banned after Cappeau left the church and leaders learned Adams was Jewish. Despite the edict, people in France continued singing the song, and in the mid-1850s, writer John Sullivan Dwight brought it to America.

3. Billy Joel's "Christmas in Fallujah" (2007)

He had not released an album in 14 years, but Billy Joel returned to the airwaves in 2007 to speak his mind at Christmas time. The artist wrote and produced a rather blunt Christmas tune about U.S. troops stuck in Iraq during the holidays. He told Katie Couric of CBS News that he hoped the Christmas ditty would remind people about the troops and the conflict. Some critics called it an anti-war song and the Pentagon Channel, an Armed Forces TV network, pulled a segment on the song at the last minute for fear of hurting morale. Some individual soldiers told CBS they didn't have a problem with it and were even moved by Joel's lyrics and thoughts.

4. The Charlie Brown Christmas Album (2006 Remix)

charlie-brown-christmasThe classic Charlie Brown Christmas is so loved and revered that any attempt to alter any portion of it will immediately be met with harsh vengeance. That's exactly what happened when the Concord Music Group released a remastered version of the famed Vince Guaraldi Trio's soundtrack to the 1965 CBS Christmas special. Fans with mosquito-like hearing noticed some major discrepancies in the tracks, including alternate takes, noise reduction, and outright sound manipulation through digital technology. The backlash became so heavy that CMG offered customers a replacement disc.

5. John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" (1971)

John Lennon tried to recapture the spirit of the peace movement with "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." The song, based on a billboard campaign he and his wife Yoko Ono ran around the world, raised some ire for combining anti-Vietnam sentiments with Christmas tunes, but it would later be one of the artist's last hit singles. Years later, after Lennon's assassination in 1980, the song made the Billboard chart.

6. Christmas in the Stars: The Star Wars Christmas Album (1980)

Maybe not controversial, but we've included this entire album for just being awful. If you're already familiar with the eye-bleeding badness of The Star Wars Holiday Special, then this musical attempt to cash in on Star Wars at Christmas shouldn't require any personal reviewing to confirm any critique. The album featured such spacey themes as "R2D2's Sleigh Ride" and "What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?)" The fact that it features Jon Bon Jovi's first recorded musical performance might make you wish R2D2 had never stopped that trash compactor in the first place.

Danny Gallagher is a freelance writer, reporter and humorist living in Texas. He can be found on the web at dannygallagher.net, on MySpace and on Twitter.

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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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