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The Final Years of Curly (of Three Stooges Fame)

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In 1932, Jerome Howard (soon to be universally known as "Curly") joined the Three Stooges comedy team. He was replacing his older brother, Shemp, as the third Stooge, joining his older brother Moe and frizzly haired Larry Fine.

In 1934, the team signed with Columbia Pictures and began churning out the series of comedy slapstick shorts that were to bring hilarity to the world. Within a year, Curly had established himself as the comedy star of the act. His "woo-woo"s and "n'yuk nyuk"s, as well as his incredible gift for physical, inventive, surreal comedy, made Curly Howard everyone's favorite Stooge. On the 60th anniversary of his passing, here's a look back at Curly's later years.

From 1934 to 1944, Curly Howard and the other Stooges made 80-odd of the funniest shorts in the history of movie comedy, but by 1945, something was obviously wrong with the brilliant Curly.

He was having a harder time than usual learning and remember his lines (although he was always a bad study anyway), his once graceful and quick movements now seemed slower and more lethargic, and his voice had lost its high-pitched vitality, now sounding deeper and more like a strained croak.

In early 1945, Moe Howard made an appointment for his kid brother at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. The test results proved shocking: Curly was suffering from high blood pressure, hypertension, a retinal hemorrhage, and obesity.

Failed Marriage

Curly loved the good life—drinking, hanging out at clubs, seeing and dating as many beautiful women as possible. Moe, attempting to help his beloved brother settle down, tried to fix Curly up with a glamorous beauty named Marion Buxbaum. Always a sucker for a pretty face, Curly married Marion after only two weeks. Curly was soon to discover that Marion was not a very nice person and was only after his money. The marriage proved a disaster, and the unhappy couple divorced after only three months together. In the terrible divorce proceedings, Marion said of Curly: "He used filthy, vile language, kept two vicious dogs, he shouted at waiters in cafes, struck and kicked me, put out cigars in the sink." These specious accusations were disputed by all who knew Curly as a jovial, good-natured, good-hearted fellow. Curly, always a free spender, had spent a fortune buying gifts for Marion, and the divorce really shook him up. He had his first stroke soon thereafter, in early 1946.

Stroke Aftermath

Curly's great vigor and boyish vitality, his comedy trademarks, sank lower and lower. Instead of enabling Curly to rest after his stroke, as Moe requested, studio head Harry Cohn kept Curly churning out new Three Stooges shorts. Sadly, these final Curly shorts show him looking very old and worn, his previously starring roles greatly reduced, and, indeed, they put a bit of a black mark on his body of otherwise amazing comedy performances. Curly's appearance grew worse until finally, while filming his 97th Three Stooges short, "Half Wit's Holiday," on May 6, 1946, the straw finally broke the camel's back. Curly was supposed to participate in the film's final, climactic pie fight, but Moe spotted Curly sitting in his chair on the set. "Come on, Babe," he said. ("Babe" was Curly's nickname among his close friends.) Moe found Curly slumped over in his chair with tears running down his face; Curly had suffered another stroke. He was taken to recover to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital, his career as a Stooge now effectively over. He was replaced in the act by older brother Shemp.

New Wife

Curly finally got a happy break in 1947, when he met an attractive brunette named Valerie Newman. The two fell in love and married on July 31, 1947. Valerie was to bear Curly a daughter, Janie, the following year. She truly loved Curly and stuck by his side, through his constant downhill ride over the next few years, feeding and even bathing him as his health continued its slow deterioration in the late 1940s.

Return to the Stooges

After his second stroke, Curly was confined to a wheelchair, but soon recovered enough to move around himself. In the days of Curly's slightly improved health, he made a cameo appearance in a Three Stooges short (with his replacement, Shemp) called "Hold That Lion!" Moe, knowing Curly was frail, made sure the set was cleared of all but the absolutely necessary actors and technicians, in order to take any pressure off his brother. Curly, a brilliant comedian to the end, acquits himself quite well in his brief appearance, coming across as very funny, even doing his trademark "woo-woo-woo" sound effects. This brief cameo was to be the only recorded instance of the three Howard brothers—Moe, Curly, and Shemp—appearing together on film. (At left, a photo of all four in "Hold That Lion!")

Renewed Life

In the post-stroke days, Curly loved playing gin rummy, watching the Hollywood Stars (a local baseball team), and going to the fights at the Hollywood Legion. He and Valerie had a swimming pool built in their home, hoping Curly could use it for physical therapy. (Curly had always loved swimming.) Crazy about dogs, he enjoyed playing with his beloved pets, a collie named "Lady" and two other canines named "Salty" and "Shorty." He watched the new device, "television," and loved a little kids' puppet show called "Time for Beany." He also watched and admired a young television comedian named Jackie Gleason.

During these final years, Curly let his thick, wavy hair grow back, instead of the world-famous shaved dome he had sported as a Stooge. He liked to wear a sea captain's hat (he had black and white captain hats) and, like any new father, he loved playing with and doting on his newborn daughter. In his last few years of "health," Curly was still upbeat and seemed happy, not down or sad about all that had happened to him. Contemporary photos show a smiling Curly, happily puffing on his cigar (despite his weak health, Curly still did not give up his beloved cigars), posing around the house, and horsing around with his little daughter.

Sharing His Good Fortune

Tom Emery, a good friend of Curly, recalls going on a drive with Curly one day in the late 1940s. Curly spotted a young girl in a wheelchair and told Tom to pull over. Curly talked to the girl at some length, asking her what she liked, what she needed, etc. Tom and Curly then drove off, and Curly bought the little girl everything she mentioned, dropping all the goodies off at her home with no card.

Declining Health

Curly's stay at his home lasted through the late 1940s, but his health deteriorated again, and on August 29, 1950, Curly was returned to the Motion Picture Home. Missing his pal, the collie "Lady," Curly asked Moe if he could bring the dog to stay with him at the hospital. (Curly liked sleeping with the dog when he was at home.) Sadly, when Moe brought Lady to see Curly, the reticent dog refused to enter Curly's hospital room, staying outside in the doorway.

During the next few months, as his health got worse, Curly became confined to bed. He was put on a strict diet of boiled apples and rice. After another stroke, he was moved to the Colonial Home, but it was soon closed down for violating local fire laws. Curly was then moved to the North Hollywood Hospital and Sanitarium.

As a consequence of his strokes, it became harder and harder for Curly to talk and communicate. One visitor during these last years recalls Curly crying because he couldn't communicate during one visit. Curly's sister-in-law remembered a time visiting Curly in the hospital when Curly was very frustrated by not being able to communicate as she and the other visitors tried to understand what he wanted. Finally, after a long and frustrating period of guessing, they realized poor Curly just wanted a bowl of ice cream. Another visitor recalls Curly trying to sit up in a chair and his hand continually falling off the arm of the chair. Moe, too, recalled Curly's tough time communicating as his health ebbed.

By the end, Curly could only communicate with Moe by squeezing his hand, sometimes just by blinking his eyes. The hospital supervisor told Moe that Curly's physical and mental deterioration was causing the hospital inconvenience and suggested that Moe move him to a mental institution. Moe adamantly refused.

Last Days

Curly was soon moved to his last residence, the Baldy View Sanitarium in San Gabriel, California. It was there, on January 18, 1952, that the great Jerome "Curly" Howard passed away. He was just 48 years old. Jules White, a great director of Curly in many Three Stooges shorts, recalls one of his final visits to Curly during Curly's waning days. White never forgot Curly's words to him that day: "Gee Jules, I guess I'll never be able to make the children laugh again."

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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