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10 Famous Disembodied Voices

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You know the voices, but who are the real people behind them? Meet 10 of the most famous disembodied voices ever recorded.

1. Amtrak's "Julie"

Believe it or not, the famous Amtrak Julie, who debuted in 2001, is actually named Julie... Julie Stinneford of Boston, MA, that is, who won the role after an extensive audition process. She's so lifelike, oftentimes riders say they didn't immediately realize Amtrak's Julie is a computer program. All those informal expressions, like when she says, "Great!" or "Got it!" -- those were recorded on purpose after Amtrak conducted a survey and learned that most people prefer their automated operators on the colloquial side (as opposed to live operators, who people seem to prefer on the formal side... go figure). In handling about a quarter of Amtrak's annual call volume Julie has saved railroad tens of millions.

Julie has become such a hit that NPR once set her up on a computerized Valentines date with Tom, Mr. Customer Service for United Airlines. Sadly, the romantic conversation derailed when the real voices behind the computer personalities started arguing which was the best mode of transportation: plane or train.

Here's an impromptu recording I made of Julie. While the voice-recognition is mostly there, she still had a hard time figuring out my juvenile sense of humor.

2. The London Underground's "Mind The Gap" Lady

Photo 146"Mind the gap" has become as iconic to London as double-decker buses or the London Bridge. For those who aren't familiar with it, the gap is the space between the subway car and the platform. Emma Clarke, one of the more famous voices of the Tube, as it's sometimes called, recorded her first announcements for the Underground in 1999. Clarke, of Altrincham, Cheshire, was born in 1970 and is a married mother of two. Besides her freelance voiceover work, she's also an accomplished writer who has penned shows for the BBC. She's also a regular contributor to BBC's 5Live.

Mind the Sack! It's widely believed that Clarke was terminated from a job at the London Underground in 2007 after posting spoof messages on her Web site. But that isn't what happened. Clarke was misquoted in the press as saying she never used the London Underground and hated tube trains; as a result a spokesman from LU told reporters that Ms. Clarke's contract was experiencing "severe delays." Cue global media frenzy. Today, Clarke's voice is still used on the London Underground and she continues to work as a freelance voiceover, writer and broadcaster. She has never been an employee of London Underground. Ever. And she does use and love tube trains. Fact. You can hear some of the funnier spoofs she recorded here.

We tracked her down recently and had her record a special "Mind the Gap" just for us!

3. Ms. "AT&T"

Picture 1The phrase "AT&T" has made Pat Fleet's voice one of the most famous and recognizable in the country. Since 1981, she's recorded tens of thousands of phone messages for various phone companies including AT&T, Verizon, and Bell Systems. Born Patricia Curry on September 11, 1943 in Dayton, Ohio, Fleet first recorded messages for the Bell System's Automated Coin Toll System. In the late "˜80s, customer surveys showed that of all AT&T's voices, Fleet's was the one people preferred most, so she landed the gig recording her most famous phrase, "AT&T," which is the company's signature sound. (You can hear it below.)

Hold the phone! In her own house, Fleet's husband recorded the outgoing message on the family's answering machine, naturally.

4. Mr. "In a world where"¦"

don-lafontaineHe had nicknames like V.O.G. (Voice of God) and "Thunder Throat." He projected the image of a giant man, despite being only 5'8 ½. His voice was one of the most recognizable and beloved movie trailer voices of all-time... the one everyone else still imitates...

Don LaFontaine was born in Duluth, Minnesota on August 26, 1940. "The King of Voiceovers" was famous for trailers that began "In a world where"¦." So famous, he spoofed himself on a Geico commercial shortly before his death a couple years ago. He provided voiceovers for more than 5,000 movie and videogame trailers, commercials and promotions during his 33-year career. At his peak, he was doing as many as 60 promotions per week, and sometimes as many as 35 in a single day right out of his own home recording studio.

Here's one of our favorites:

5. Ms. GPS

Karen_JacobsenThough first a singer, Karen Jacobsen is known best for giving driving directions. She is the voice of GPS. Born in Mackay, Australia, she now resides in New York. When the Global Positioning System needed a voice in 2005, they decided the most desirable candidate would be an Australian now living in the Northeastern United States. Jacobsen won the audition and her voice guides drivers the world over. To create the computerized speech system, Jacobsen had to record 50 hours of script to get every possible combination of syllables. Then, the behind-the-scenes tech wizards cut it all up to work in their computer program.

The Right Direction: Recently, she started To Zambia with Love, to help cildren living in poverty.

6. Mr. Moviephone

Russ_LeathermanRuss Leatherman was born in 1962 and helped to found Moviephone in 1989. A decade later, in 1999, Moviephone was purchased by AOL. Leatherman's voice has become famous and his reviews are featured weekly on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News Channel as well as radio staions coast to coast. Being a pop icon always leads to parody; as the saying goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery, and Russ Leatherman should surely be flattered. His iconic "Hello and welcome to Moviephone!" has been parodied on shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and who can forget the classic "Why don't you just tell me what movie you want to see?" from Seinfeld.

In case you forgot what the original sounds like:

7. Mr. BT Speaking Clock

brian_cobby_1985Brian Cobby, who began his career as a telephone exchange worker, was selected from more than 5,000 British Telephone employees to be the voice of BT's famous speaking clock. He went on to beat out the other 11 finalist who were all female, to become the first and, to date, only male voice of the BT speaking clock. In case you're not familiar with the service, in the United Kingdom, the speaking clock can be reached by dialing 123 on a BT phone line. It's automated, of course, but back in the day there were actual people sitting in windowless rooms answering the phone and relaying the time.

Cobby was born on October 12, 1929. He was the voice of the clock for more than 22 years, before finally being replaced in 2007 by Sara Mendes da Costa. Here's a recording of Cobby's speaking clock:

8. Mr. "You've Got Mail!"

elwood-edwards-voice-aol-709885During the reign of AOL, "You've Got Mail!" - the three words that revolutionized e-mail and even inspired a movie, was heard more than 27 million times a day (more than 18,000 times a minute). Though AOL eventually went on to get famous folk to record the catch-phrase, the original was voiced by Elwood Edwards, who also did AOL's "Welcome," "File's done," and "Goodbye."

But how did he land the job in the first place? Well, in 1989, his wife was working in customer service for Quantum Computer Services. Quantum had an online service called Q-Link. One day, she overheard the company's CEO, Steve Case -- yes, the guy who went on to launch AOL -- telling someone how he wanted to incorporate a real person's voice into the service. She barked, "Hey, you ought to try Elwood." It made sense, seeing as her husband had spent his long career in local radio and TV. So he spoke those original four phrases into a cassette tape and was soon on his way to becoming a disembodied voice legend.

You've Got to be kidding: In an interview, his wife once remarked: "A few times, when he's been taking a nap, I've logged onto AOL - and he's woken himself up!"

Here's the original, kicking it old-school, AOL 1.0:

9. Ms. BT

PatPat Whymark, the voice of BT Telephone services (as well as the NHS Swine Flu Hotline), began her career studying acting at Royal Welsh Collage of Music and Drama. In addition to providing voiceovers for numerous commercials, films, and BBC documentaries, Whymark helped to found the Eastern Angels Theatre Company where she composed music for several plays. Whymark now works solely as a voiceover artist for Voice-Prompt.

10. Ms. Voicemail

kenleyOn top of being a best selling-author, consultant, and media personality, Dr. Joan Kenley is also known as the "voice of voicemail." She has recorded voicemail messages for Nortel, Pacific Bell, Verizon, and Sprint voicemail systems. She's a talk show host and a psychologist, and involved in all sorts of squishy New Age sounding things: She's a core member of The Millionth Circle, an international, grass-roots, volunteer movement comprised of women who believe that gathering in circles is a powerful way to create positive change in world consciousness.

D'oh! yeah: she's also the "telephone lady" on a few episodes of The Simpsons.

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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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