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5 Things You Didn't Know About Bing Crosby

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You know him as the man who sang "White Christmas" and co-starred in a slew of movies with Bob Hope, but what don't you know about Bing Crosby? Here are five facts that might surprise you.

1. He Got His Name from a Comic Strip

The entertainer was born Harry Lillis Crosby, which doesn't have quite the same ring to it. The nickname "Bing" found him when he was just seven years old. The Spokane Spokesman-Review ran a comic feature called "The Bingville Bugle," which was a parody of hillbilly newspapers. The young Crosby thought the feature was a riot, and he would giggle uncontrollably when reading it. A neighbor noticed his laughter and started calling Crosby "Bingo from Bingville." The "o" eventually went away, but the nickname stuck.

2. He Was Almost Columbo

When television fans think of Columbo, they probably envision Peter Falk starring as the title character. However, the job could have been Crosby's.

The Columbo character made his debut in 1960 on The Chevy Mystery Show with Bert Freed portraying the detective. Thomas Mitchell also spent some time in the role, but the character really exploded when NBC decided to make a television movie in 1968.

The film's producers wanted either Crosby or the great Lee J. Cobb to portray Columbo, but Cobb couldn't squeeze it into his schedule. Crosby turned down the role for a funnier reason: he thought it would interfere with his golfing. At that point Bing considered himself mostly retired, and he didn't want to deal with the long drag of shooting keeping him off of the links.

3. He Was Serious About Golf

Maybe turning down an iconic role for golf isn't so surprising considering what an avid golfer Crosby was. Crosby wasn't just any old amateur player; he was serious about his game and whittled his handicap down to two while playing in both the British and U.S. Amateur championships. In the late 1940s he signed a contract with ABC to do a weekly radio variety show, but he made a seemingly strange request: that the show be taped instead of live. This stipulation was a first for broadcast radio, but it enabled Crosby to spend more time on the golf course.

Although Crosby was a fine player, his most enduring contribution to the game was probably the tournament he started in 1937. The first "Crosby Clambake" was played for a purse of $3000 that came out of Crosby's pocket, but it gradually grew into a major event. The tournament is now known as the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, one of the PGA Tour's most beloved events.

4. He Could Placate David Bowie

The Thin White Duke was set to appear on Crosby's Christmas TV special in 1977 when the production hit a snag. The producers had decided that Bowie would sing "The Little Drummer Boy," but Bowie felt the song wasn't really right for him and refused to sing it.

The nervous producers huddled and decided to rewrite the song in an attempt to get something Bowie would actually perform. With just hours to go before the broadcast, the musical team wrote an alternative version with a new melody and alternate lyrics. Bowie liked the new version, dubbed "Peace on Earth," and agreed to perform it with Crosby, complete with a stilted intro sketch. Check out the amazing clip:

The song actually had staying power, and RCA ended up releasing it as a single in 1982. It still gets little resurgences each holiday seasons; in 2006 it reached #3 on the charts during December.

5. He Liked the Ponies, Too

Crosby wasn't just a golfer; he also enjoyed a little bit of action at the track. In 1937, he teamed up with a group of fellow superstars to open the Del Mar Racetrack just north of San Diego. In addition to Crosby, the team of investors included Jimmy Durante and Oliver Hardy. Crosby was at the track's gate on its opening day, shaking hands and greeting guests, and the track soon became one of California's hottest spots for celebrity sightings.

The racing itself wasn't too shabby, either. The track played host to the famous winner-take-all two-horse race between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti. The race was such big national news that NBC radio made it the company's first-ever national broadcast of a horse race.

Another funny story about Crosby and racing: in 1943, the singer's house burned down. That's a bad piece of luck, but Crosby managed to salvage some of his spirits. As he was picking through the ashes and rubble in search of any useful relics, he found a shoe in which he'd hidden $10,000 in track winnings. The money was still intact.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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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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