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The Late Movies: Celebrities Reciting the Alphabet on Sesame Street

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If you can read this, thank the gang at Sesame Street. Since 1969, they've been cranking out episode after episode of quality, entertaining children's programming—with some fun stuff for adults too. In the four decades since its debut, Sesame Street has hosted hundreds of celebrity guests to teach the basics. Though we've loaded you up on Sesame Street clips in the past, here's something a little different: 10 of our favorite instances of celebrities reciting (or singing) the alphabet. Do you have a favorite that didn't make the cut? Tell us in the comments.

James Earl Jones

As an adult I find this mildly creepy. As a child, I suspect I would run screaming from the room. Ironically, Jones thought the same thing about the Muppets themselves. This video is one of several shot and sliced into the unbroadcasted test pilots of Sesame Street. The clips were later included, beginning with episode 0002. However, Jones reportedly told Matt Robinson (who played Gordon) that he didn't think the show would last and recommended axing the Muppets. "This Muppet business has got to go," he said. "Kids will be terrified."

Jackie Robinson

The 1949 National League MVP recorded this insert, which was later included in many shows, beginning with episode 0054.

Lena Horne

I thought the first time I heard of Lena Horne was in a holiday-themed Gap commercial, but I had an instant flashback to my childhood when I saw this clip. Her earliest known appearance on the show was singing "How Do You Do?" with Grover and she later returned to film this gospel version of the alphabet song.

Richard Pryor

The late, great comedian has a storied history with the Muppets, including a brief appearance as a balloon salesman in The Muppet Movie. He recorded this alphabet insert in the 1970s.

Bill Cosby

The Coz filmed this, the first of many inserts, in 1970 for Sesame Street's season two premiere. Following the success of Sesame Street, Cosby appeared as a regular in the first season of The Electric Company, where many of his segments included "twins" by using a split-screen, an idea that originated in this alphabet skit.

Patti LaBelle

The Philadelphia gospel queen made her way to Sesame Street in 2001 for episode 3922.

Lou Rawls

Rawls sang the alphabet in an insert from episode 0043. Years later, he performed his hit "Groovy People" on the show.

Judy Collins

This season eight clip features Snuffy as you've never seen him before. Arranged by Big Bird, he sings a madrigal rendition of "The Alphabet Song" with American folksinger Judy Collins.

Billy Joel

In 1988, Billy Joel made his Sesame Street debut singing "Just the Way You Are" with Marlee Matlin. He also filmed this clip singing the alphabet song.

Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Though Ladysmith Black Mambazo originally performed "African Alphabet" with Kermit in January 1988, they returned a few months later to perform it with Paul Simon, who signs the alphabet while singing. In 1997, Ladysmith Black Mambazo were spoofed by Sesame Street's worm band, Wormsmith Black Mambazo, when they performed "African Alphabet" at the Worm World Music Festival.

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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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