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Celebrating Christmas with The Beatles

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Paul: "I just wanted to thank you fans. Don't know where we'd be without you."
John: "The army, probably."

George, speaking about their upcoming film: "This one will be in color."
John: "Green."
--1964 Beatles Christmas Record

So much of the career and lives of The Beatles has been documented in books, TV specials, movies, videos, magazine articles, and more. But one often ignored facet of their fascinating story is their annual Christmas records. The Christmas recordings, usually done after a regular recording session in the studio, give a unique perspective of the evolution of the most popular band in the world.


The original idea for an annual Beatles Christmas record came from the Beatles press officer, Tony Barrow (the originator of the group's most common nickname, "the Fab Four"), who was inspired by the Queen's annual Yuletide greetings on British radio. Barrow, whose office would be backed up for weeks with floods of fan letters for the group, thought a Christmas record might please their many fans. Thus, for the next seven years (from 1963 to 1969), the boys would record a 7-inch flexi-disc of them singing and talking, which would be mailed directly to their U.S. and U.K. fan club members.

The first few Christmas records were written as scripts, but it's the boys' ad-libs that make them so interesting. The records give a glimpse into the boys' Monty Python-esque humor, a humor which is, at it's best, hilarious and which was a key ingredient in the band's incredible success and popularity. A popular British radio show, "The Goon Show," featuring Peter Sellers, had a definite influence on the Beatles' Christmas recordings. John Lennon, especially, was a devoted, inveterate fan of the show.

1963

The first Christmas record shows the Beatles' early fresh-faced innocence as, one after the other, they thank their fans for a "gear year" and sing renditions of "Good King Wenceslas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ringo."

1964

The second record is actually much funnier, and more sarcastic, than the previous one. John speaks about his book, reading obviously scripted dialogue: "I write in my spare time, it says here." Paul asks if he wrote that himself, to which John replies, "No, it's somebody's bad handwroter."

1965

The 1965 Christmas record was not as scripted as its two predecessors, and it shows. The boys sing a deliberately off-key version of Paul McCartney's hit, "Yesterday," and seem a bit blasé and robotic as they give their fans their customary thanks. (It cannot be neglected that the Beatles were, at this time, having "marijuana for breakfast," according to John. They had also discovered LSD in '65.)

1966

The Beatles came back in 1966 with a full-fledged British pantomime called "Everywhere It's Christmas." During the last months of 1966, the boys had been apart for the first time in four years, and one can easily hear their pleasure at being together again. They obviously had a ball cutting up, making inside jokes, and assuming various roles.

1967

"Christmas Time is Here Again," the 1967 record, is probably the greatest Beatles Christmas record. The title tune is catchy, the sketches are great, and the jokes are sharp. John and Ringo even designed the cover. Sadly, this was to be the last Christmas record in which one can hear the boys enjoying each other's company.

1968

By the 1968 Christmas record, the first to be recorded individually instead of as a group, the disintegration of the Beatles had begun. Yoko Ono's presence was a necessity for John, and an onus to the other three. John recites two of his poems; one, called "Jock and Yono," was a thinly disguised mild attack telling of the "two balloons named Jock and Yono who were in love" and "had to overcome overwhelming oddities, including some of their beast friends." George sarcastically thanks the Beatles fans for "making [their] lives worth living," before having then-popular singer Tiny Tim give a horrible rendition of John's song "Nowhere Man" — quite possibly the single worst Beatles cover of all time.

1969

At the time of the 1969 Christmas recording, the Beatles had already split up, although it had not yet been publicly announced. George makes a token 16-second appearance, while Ringo gets in a brief plug for his new movie, "The Magic Christian." Paul ad-libs a pleasant song, but the majority of this dull final Christmas record is devoted to the obviously besotted John chattering with his beloved new bride, Yoko. (I love John Lennon, and he's definitely not a boring guy, but when he gets into the banter with Yoko, the "magic" seems to leave.)

In 1970, a compilation album of all seven Christmas records was released to the devoted fans.


Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.


Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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