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Hands Across America: 25 Years Later

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© Bettmann/CORBIS

On May 25, 1986, over 5 million Americans linked hands to make a 4,125-mile human chain that stretched from New York City to Long Beach. They weren’t just big hand holding enthusiasts, though. They were participating in Hands Across America, a massive charity event and fundraiser that hoped to raise money for and draw attention to homelessness and hunger.

In the nearly 25 years since Hands was a national phenomenon, it has slowly faded in our memories. Let’s take a look at the story behind the big event.

Hands Across America was the brainchild of music promoter and charity activist Ken Kragen, who had previously played a lead role in putting together USA for Africa’s 1985 charity single “We Are the World.” Following the success of that project, Kragen trained his sights on the more ambitious task of forming a human chain across the country to raise money for charity. Kragen and his team billed Hands as “the largest participatory event in the history of the world.”

Coca-Cola kicked in $8 million to get the project rolling, but an event like this really needed celebrities. Hands assembled a real murderers’ row of stars. The event had four celebrity co-chairmen: Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers, Lily Tomlin, and Pete Rose. (Rose and his Cincinnati Reds teammates joined hands with Little Leaguers at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium during a road trip.)

What better place to grab the national consciousness than a Super Bowl commercial? That January, Hands made its first big splash when it ran an ad featuring its theme song during Super Bowl XX. The ad drummed up some nice publicity for Hands Across America, but it couldn’t compare to what followed: a star-studded music video featuring the event’s amazingly cheesy theme song. (Since this was 1986, of course the song’s backing band was Toto.)

Despite the terrific production values of this video, at least one celebrity was hesitant to participate. Just a week before the event President Ronald Reagan said, “I don't believe that there is anyone going hungry in America by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them; it is by people not knowing where or how to get this help." In other words, if anyone was hungry it was his or her own fault. Reagan eventually softened his stance just two days before Hands Across America and took a spot in the chain on the White House lawn.

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Other celebrities came out in droves, too. Prince kicked in a $13,200 donation. Jet reported that NBA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alex English joined with Olympic track star Edwin Moses to form a sports committee. Whoopi Goldberg, Harry Belafonte, Brooke Shields and Dionne Warwick joined in on the handholding.

Even with this Hollywood glitz, the whole “across America” claim was a little dubious. The participants couldn’t fully stretch from sea to shining sea given Hands’ circuitous route, so long ribbons or lengths of rope had to stand in for actual people for up to a hundred miles in areas like deserts. The Los Angeles Times reported that there were huge gaps in the line in some of the dodgier sections of East LA, and volunteers’ efforts to recruit people from their front porches to join the chain didn’t generate any interest.

What do you do with millions of people once they’ve linked hands? Why not have them belt out a few tunes? The chain stayed together for 15 minutes, long enough for participants to sing “We Are the World,” “America the Beautiful” and, naturally, the Hands theme song.

A human chain is nice and all, but how does it raise any money to feed the hungry? Participants weren’t just being asked to come out and hold hands. They were also supposed to cough up a donation of at least $10 apiece to join the chain. Between those donations and corporate sponsorships from companies like Citibank and American Express, Hands seemed poise to raise quite a bit of cash; the project’s coordinators wanted to gross $50 million that could then be dispersed to local causes through grants.

However, as anyone who’s ever tried to form a human chain across a continent can tell you, it’s no small task. As Hands’ national director told Time in an understated interview before the event, “It's like planning the invasion of Normandy and Hannibal's crossing of the Alps on the same day.” The organizers used a pair of giant computers located in Marshfield, WI, to manage the event and assign participants a place to stand.

Planning and promoting Hands required nine months and a staff of 400 people, which took a huge bite out of the event’s bottom line. On top of that, people were excited to hold hands but less enthusiastic about mailing in their donations. Hands only pulled in around $34 million total, and once the event spent around $17 million to pay its bills it only netted $15-16 million. Robert Hayes of the National Coalition for the Homeless told the New York Times that the event’s organizers “spent too much to raise too little and promoted a national extravaganza empty of content.''

At least one homeless family got a huge benefit from the events. Six-year-old Amy Sherwood had been living in a New York homeless shelter when she was picked to be in the Hands promotional video. Hollywood talent scouts decided the girl showed promise and inked her to an acting contract. Little Amy still took her symbolic place as the first link in the chain where Hands began in New York’s Battery Park even though she and her family had moved into a Brooklyn apartment.

Despite critics’ jabs that the event was more of a spectacle than a fundraiser, it would be shortsighted to just look at the raw numbers on how much Hands collected. The promoters pointed out that the event helped raise the profile of the homeless in the public consciousness, which likely led to more volunteering and donations to related causes. If the event really did raise awareness, then it’s easy to see why its organizers deemed it a success. And if it didn’t? At least it left a really odd blip on our cultural memory.

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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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