The "Lyrical Embarrassment" that is the Sesame Street Theme Song

My 17-month-old daughter is just getting into Sesame Street, and I have to say, I think I’m enjoying it even more than she is. But while I’m totally into the guest appearances by Andy Samberg and Will Arnett, her main thing right now is getting her groove on to the theme song. And who can blame her? It’s crazy-catchy and has been for 42 years. If you once loved it as much as she does now, check out a few facts about “Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street”. I apologize in advance – there’s a very low chance that you’ll escape without the tune bouncing around in your head for at least a day.

Sesame Street Sings the Blues

Although “The Kids,” also known as “The Wee Willie Winter Singers,” sang the theme song for years (it’s still warbled by kids, of course), there’s a very grown up element to “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street.” The harmonica featured prominently in the song is played by Jean “Toots” Thielemans, one of the greatest harmonica players in the history of jazz. He’s worked with almost every big jazz and blues star you can think of – Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Benny Goodman and more. But he considers his Sesame Street work some of his best: “My playing on the Sesame Street theme had always been an important reward on my lapel,” he said in 2008.

At the age of 89, Toots is still getting his jazz on, by the way. Here’s some of his impressive work over the closing credits of the show:

Sesame Street: Season 3 End Credits (1971-1972)

A Lyrical Embarrassment

Though the melody of the song is lauded pretty much across the board – kids and critics both loved it (and still do) – Jon Stone, the song’s co-writer, has come out and admitted that he finds the lyrics to be “trite and thoughtless” with “happy little clichés” and “platitudinous kiddie-show lyrics.”

A Torture Device

Apparently not everyone loves the classic ditty as much as Lydia does, because U.S. forces used the song to break Iraqi captives in the early 2000’s. Heavy metal bands such as Metallica and Drowning Pool were also used, but another kiddie favorite made the list as well – that obnoxious purple dinosaur. I could listen to Sesame Street songs for quite some time, but play Barney for a couple of hours and I’d confess to crimes I’ve never even heard of.

So How Do You Get to Sesame Street?

It’s a question for the ages, Flossers. The exact location of Sesame Street has never been officially revealed, though art director Victor DiNapoli once said it’s supposed to represent the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The show is actually taped at studios in Queens, but the set isn’t meant to represent that area. In the special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, several Muppets can be seen getting off on the 86th St. subway stop, which would put the fictional street somewhere on the Upper East Side. And on the 35th anniversary special a few years back, Elmo sent Oscar a package with the zip code 10128, making Big Bird's home in midtown.

I’ll leave you with Gladys Knight and the Pips doing their version of “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street” in 1988.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]