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Music History #14: "Marie Provost"

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“Marie Provost”
Written by Nick Lowe (1978)
Performed by Nick Lowe

The Music

“She was a winner that became a doggie’s dinner ...” went the opening line of the chorus of Nick Lowe’s song “Marie Provost.” Lowe was inspired to write the song after reading Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. The book, first published in the U.S. in 1965, detailed many sordid scandals of famous actors and actresses. One such story concerned the silent film star Marie Prevost (Lowe changed the spelling of her last name for his song) and how, when she was found dead, her hungry Dachshund had left her “a half-eaten corpse.” Like much in Anger’s book, it wasn’t true. But it made for a good story, and a good song too. Here’s Nick.

The History

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For every Joan Crawford or Clark Gable, there are at least fifty lesser stars whose big screen shine has faded over the years until they’ve been all but forgotten. Marie Prevost is one of the unlucky ones.

The Canadian actress, born Mary Bickford Dunn in 1898, moved to Los Angeles when she was a teenager. While working as a secretary, she was discovered by famed silent comedy director Mack Sennett, who added her to his stable of ingénues, dubbed “Sennett’s Bathing Beauties.” Impressed by Dunn’s bedroom-eyed, beestung-lipped appeal, Sennett rechristened her Marie Prevost, “the exotic French girl.”

After a few small roles in Sennett pictures, Prevost signed a deal with Universal Studios in 1922. There, she was regularly cast as the flapper—the sassy, jazz age babe. Prevost even appeared on the cover of the first issue of a long-gone publication called Flapper magazine, where she was described as “a fascinating little minx.” As the decade went on, Prevost began to work with big directors like Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch, proving herself as a versatile actress with sharp comic timing and understated charm.

Then just as she was poised to make the leap to leading lady, the bottom dropped out.

In the space of a few months in 1926, her mother was killed in a car accident, and her marriage fell apart. Prevost started to hit the bottle. She continued to work, but the drinking soon took its toll. She gained weight. She forgot her lines. And she started to lose her siren looks. In 1928, she had a brief affair with millionaire director Howard Hughes, but Hughes broke it off, sending Prevost into deeper depression. Her career hit the skids.

By the mid-1930s, she was valiantly trying to recapture her momentum. In a New York Times article from 1936, titled “Sometimes They Do Come Back,” she was described as a “former star who had been successful with a reducing course.” But the comeback wasn’t to be.

On January 23, 1937, police were called to a Los Angeles apartment building after neighbors complained about the incessant barking of a dog in Prevost’s apartment. They found the actress lying face down on her bed. She had been dead for three days. The cause of death was acute alcoholism and malnutrition. Prevost’s legs were indeed bloody from where her dog had been nipping at her, presumably trying to wake her up.

Prevost’s funeral was paid for by her friend and fellow actress Joan Crawford. The fact that Prevost had only $300 to her name was one of the examples that eventually led to the community of actors establishing the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in the 1940s.

Today, Prevost has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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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]