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5 Classic Christmas Songs (and Other Songs Those Artists Recorded)

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"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has been on repeat in shopping malls since Thanksgiving, but that doesn't mean it's the only popular song Brenda Lee ever recorded. Here's a quick primer on the artists responsible for five of the 10 most-broadcast holiday songs of 2011.

1. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Brenda Lee was only 13 years old in 1958 when she recorded a new Christmas melody written by Johnny Marks, the composer whose resume included “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas.” The record only sold 5,000 copies that year but has since become a holiday staple. The pint-sized singer (she never grew taller than 4’9”) already had a small following in the South thanks to a couple of country record hits, but her career skyrocketed in 1960 when she recorded what would become her signature tune, “I’m Sorry.”

“Little Miss Dynamite” went on to have 10 consecutive Billboard 100 hits from 1960 to 1962, a record for a female artist at the time that remained unbroken until Madonna came along in the 1980s. Here’s Brenda belting out her #3 hit “Sweet Nothin’s”:

2. Feliz Navidad

José Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico and moved with his family to New York when he was five years old. Left blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma, he developed an ear for music at an early age and played both the guitar and accordion with virtuosity by the time he was nine years old. He grew up, moved to Los Angeles and became a professional songwriter and musician. In 1968 his Latin-flavored version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” hit number three on the Billboard chart and sold over a million copies. In 1970 he wrote and recorded “Feliz Navidad” in which he purposely sang in both Spanish and English in order to bridge “two wonderful cultures” during a time of year that traditionally inspired good will toward all.

“Feliz Navidad” went on to become one of the Top 25 most-played holiday songs, but there was a period of time when many radio stations refused to play anything by Feliciano. His crime? Singing the very first stylized version of the National Anthem. It happened prior to Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Beloved play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell, who’d arranged for Feliciano to perform, later noted that apparently many baseball fans were offended by Feliciano’s long hair and dark glasses (apparently not realizing that he was blind) and his guitar and immediately assumed he was one of those hippy anti-Establishment draft-dodging war protestors. That he dared to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” in such a non-traditional way provided the additional fuel necessary to light a fire of outrage from the American Legion and other veterans organizations, and the Tiger Stadium switchboard almost blew a fuse before José uttered the words “…and the home of the brave.”

3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Gene Autry may not have burned up the Billboard Pop Chart, but he was well-known as a cowboy crooner with several best-selling records about tumbleweeds and little dogs and the lone prairie. He was also something of a Renaissance Man: he founded Challenge Records, on which the Champs released their Number One hit “Tequila,” he starred in a passel of Western-themed films, and he owned the California Angels Major League Baseball team from 1961 until 1997. He is the only person to have five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame (for Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, Recording and Live Performance/Theater). Despite the huge success of “Rudolph,” Autry’s signature tune was considered to be “Back in the Saddle Again.”

4. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Crooner Andy Williams hosted his own TV variety show from 1962 to 1971, and for a time his annual Christmas special was a huge ratings hit. But then marital strife struck after 14 years and he and Claudine Longet divorced. One year later Longet was charged with the shooting murder of her boyfriend (alpine ski racer Spider Sabich), and Williams personally escorted her to court every day of her trial. She was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Besides his Christmas hits, Williams is most often associated with the song “Moon River,” and he had several Top 10 hits in the late 1950s. But his one hit that gets the most retroactive airplay is his rendition of the theme song from one of filmdom’s first “chick flicks,” Love Story.

5. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

Nat “King” Cole was an internationally known jazz pianist and vocalist when NBC offered him the opportunity to host his own TV variety show in 1956. When Cole accepted he did so as a reluctant trailblazer; he wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a crusader, but as the first African-American to host such a prime time show, he saw the opportunity to be the Jackie Robinson of television and perhaps open up the medium to other black performers. Unfortunately in those pre-Civil Rights days most national advertisers refused to sponsor the show, fearful of a possible boycott (especially by folks in the South). A representative from Max Factor Cosmetics explained why his company declined its support: “Negroes don’t sell lipstick.” (Cole’s response: “What do they think we use – chalk?!”) To its credit, NBC believed in the program and supported it without a national sponsor for 42 episodes until Cole himself pulled the plug. He was losing an estimated $500,000 annually in personal appearances by concentrating on the stressful uphill battle that his weekly TV show had become. He returned to the concert circuit and the recording studio where the audiences tended to be a bit more colorblind. Cole had many Top 10 hits, including “Ramblin’ Rose,” which was his highest charting pop single (#2) and sold over a million copies.

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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]