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Being Fred Mertz: The Life of William Frawley

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The Early Years

The man who achieved television immortality as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy was born in Burlington, Iowa, on February 26, 1887. As a young boy, William Clement Frawley sang in the choir at St. Paul's Catholic Church and played at the Burlington Opera House. His first job was as a stenographer for the Union Pacific Railroad; he later found employment as a court reporter.

Finding Fame

Bitten by the show biz bug, he soon began performing a vaudeville act with his brother Paul.

In 1914, he married Edna Louise Broedt (his only marriage) and the two performed in vaudeville together in a light comedy act as "Frawley and Louise," touring the Orpheum and the Keith circuits until their divorce in 1927.

Possessing a deep, bass singing voice, Frawley also had a successful singing career, appearing on Broadway and reportedly introducing the songs "My Mammy" and "My Melancholy Baby" to stage audiences.

In 1916, Frawley signed a contract with Paramount Studios to appear in silent films. For the next 35 years, Frawley was a beloved character actor and a familiar face in more than 100 films. His movie credits are eclectic as well as prolific and include such popular films as Gentleman Jim (1942) with Errol Flynn, Going My Way (1944) with Bing Crosby, the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947). He also made two appearances with Abbott and Costello—A Night in the Tropics (1940) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)—and one with Bob Hope, The Lemon Drop Kid (1951).

Bad Reputation

Although a highly successful "working actor" in films, Frawley's movie career had begun to slow down by 1951. This seems to have two reasons, one of which was his legendary crabby, gruff, and misanthropic personality. A notorious curmudgeon, by 1951 Frawley discovered that fewer and fewer actors, directors, and producers were willing to put up with him. (As early as 1928, Frawley had been fired from the Broadway show That's My Baby for punching actor Clifton Webb in the nose.)

The other cause for the slowing of his career was his equally notorious love for the bottle. So, in mid-1951, when actress Lucille Ball contacted Frawley about the possibility of taking on the role of gruff landlord Fred Mertz in her new comedy television series, I Love Lucy, she and her husband/co-star Desi Arnaz were more than a bit leery. Unable to get Gale Gordon, their first choice for the role, Arnaz contacted Frawley and laid down the law. He simply told Frawley that he'd get three chances. The first screw-up would be tolerated, the second would get him a severe reprimand, and the third would get him fired.

Frawley, by then 64 years old, long-divorced, and unemployed, living alone in his Hollywood apartment, agreed to Arnaz's terms and was to conduct himself professionally over the course of the next nine years, until the show and its follow-up series, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, ended their legendary runs in 1960.

I Love Lucy

On the first day of I Love Lucy rehearsals, Frawley overheard his scripted "wife," co-star Vivian Vance (22 years his junior), say to Lucy and Desi, "I can't play his wife. No one will believe I'm married to that old coot." (Note: The word "coot" may have been replaced by a much cruder epithet by Vance.) Whatever she actually did say, Frawley was never to forgive her and, for the next nine years, although they played one of the funniest husband and wife teams in TV history, by all accounts the two hated each other.

Interestingly (and fortunately), this intense hatred seemed to actually help their performances and their back-and-forth barbs and insults played even funnier because of it. (After Lucy ended its original run, a spin-off called Fred and Ethel was discussed. Frawley was willing to put aside his feelings toward Vance and saw the financial possibilities of the series, but Vance adamantly refused to ever work with Frawley again.)

A lifelong baseball fan, Frawley had insisted on a unique clause in his I Love Lucy contract: If his beloved New York Yankees made it to the World Series, he would be given time off in October for the World Series. This clause came into play seven times during Frawley's I Love Lucy run and caused him to be written out of two full episodes.

Frawley earned five consecutive Emmy nominations (1953-1957) for his always brilliant performances. Although he never won, Frawley's Fred Mertz remains one of the most beloved characters in the history of television.

Despite his animosity toward Vance, Frawley did develop one of the few genuine friendships of his life during I Love Lucy, becoming close with Desi Arnaz. Arnaz, the show's producer, made sure his friend was well-paid; by the end, Frawley was pulling $7,500 a week, a very generous rate for the time, plus a good residual deal (which few actors had in the early days of television).

My Three Sons

After the 1960 cancellation of Lucy, Frawley immediately found steady work as "Bub" O'Casey, another lovable curmudgeon, on the series My Three Sons. Much like his I Love Lucy stint, Frawley's My Three Sons work was done professionally and without incident. (Still harboring bad feelings for Vivian Vance, though, he did allegedly enjoy gathering cans of film at the Desilu studios and tossing them onto the adjacent soundstage, where Vance was then working on The Lucy Show; the loud clanging would inevitably upset Vance, much to Frawley's delight.)

By the mid-1960s, though, alcohol and old age finally took their toll, and Frawley began forgetting his lines. One muffed take would follow another, and he'd try to cover his embarrassment by bellowing insults like, "Who writes this crap, anyway?" If the company didn't get his scenes filmed in the mornings, Frawley would sometimes nod off in the middle of afternoon filmings. Eventually, a prop man had to lie on the floor, out of the camera's view, and tap Frawley's shoe to keep him from dozing off in the close-ups. By the show's fifth season, Frawley was in such ill health that he couldn't pass the studio's annual health insurance exam and was let go.

The End

William Frawley's last ever TV appearance was with his former co-star Lucille Ball on a 1965 episode of The Lucy Show titled "The Traveller." In the brief cameo, as Frawley walks by, Lucy turns her head, sees him, and remarks, "He reminds me of someone I used to know."

On March 3, 1966, 79-year-old William Frawley died of a heart attack while walking home from a movie. According to Hollywood lore, when Vance heard the news of his death, she shouted, "Champagne for everyone!"

In Frawley's honor, Desi Arnaz immediately took out a full-page ad in all the trade papers with the words "Buenos noches, amigo." Arnaz was to serve as one of the pallbearers at Frawley's funeral.


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.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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