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Chuck Jones, animator of Looney Tunes

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Getty Images

Few animated series have aged as gracefully as Looney Tunes, and that’s in large measure because of director Chuck Jones. He drew relentlessly as a child, a result of a nearly unlimited access to pencils and stationery because of his father’s business ventures. (Each time one of his dad’s companies closed, Chuck and his siblings were given the remainder office supplies.) He never stopped drawing, and would go on to elevate animated shorts as an art form. Here are a few things you might not have known about the man behind Bugs Bunny.

He worked for Walt.

After Warner Brothers closed its animation studio, Chuck Jones worked for Walt Disney. “In animation,” he said in an interview, “asking ‘Walt who?’ would be a very strange thing. It would be like saying ‘Jesus,’ and saying ‘Jesus who?’—he was that important.” (Jones added that poor Walt Lantz, director and producer of Woody Woodpecker, was always overshadowed as the other Walt. “There were no Chucks, which is just as well.”)

He didn’t last long at Disney, though.

“The reason I stopped working [at Disney] was because I saw that nothing happened unless Walt okayed it, and you might have to wait three weeks to get an appointment with Walt to come in and see this sequence you were working on. And it was old stuff to these guys, but not to me. I was used to working at a pace.” 

Dr. Seuss was an old war buddy.

During World War II, Jones served with Theodor Geisel in a unit that produced training films for soldiers. They worked on such series as Situation Snafu and Fubar. Army training shorts could be pretty boring, he noted. “The pictures were made by some Army colonel who thought he was a director.” Jones and Geisel made it a point to keep their films interesting and entertaining. As if it’s not weird enough that the guy behind Bugs Bunny and the guy behind the Cat in the Hat were war buddies, they later collaborated with the Navy on other films. The Navy liaison? Hank Ketcham, the cartoonist behind Dennis the Menace. 

He didn’t make Saturday morning cartoons...

This might sound weird to anyone under 30, but for a very long time, if you wanted to watch cartoons, you had to wake up early on Saturday mornings. Looney Tunes, of course, was a mainstay. But none of Chuck Jones’s work was made for children on Saturday mornings. “They were always made for theatrical release right up to ’63. None of them were made for television. There’s a perfectly logical reason for it, and it was that there wasn’t any television.” In the 1930s and 40s, he and his team figured the work that they were doing had a total lifespan of three years—first run through fifth run—until finally the films would be worn and retired. Accordingly, they were unafraid to take risks with what they were doing. This often drove their producers crazy. “We got a double pleasure, and that was to make pictures that we enjoyed making, plus making someone else uncomfortable by doing it.

“Because we were so young and had recently left our parents, or teachers, we had very little respect for adults. So we ended up where every creative person is, and that is where you paint or draw for yourself. And we figured if we made each other laugh, hopefully the audience would as well. And it turns out they did.”

...and yet he helped invent Saturday morning cartoons.

In the mid-1950s, KTLA in Los Angeles and WNEW in New York starting running old Warner Brothers cartoons from the archives on Saturday mornings, thus beginning the tradition of programming for children. Animated features at the cinema didn’t last long after that. “We used to kid about it when television was being done... We figured TV might put us out of work, which eventually it did.”

He said of his work at Warners, which was never meant to survive, let alone endure, “We kind of lived in a paradise and we didn’t know it.”

He reportedly considered "What’s Opera, Doc?" to be his greatest work.

If the words “Kill the wabbit!” mean anything to you, then you’re familiar with arguably the greatest cartoon of all time. The 1957 animated short features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, and parodies Wagner’s operas. (The cartoon’s most famous line is sung to "Ride of the Valkyries.") This wasn’t his only take on opera. He took on Rossini in 1949’s Rabbit of Seville.

He had to persuade his old friend that How the Grinch Stole Christmas would make a great show.

“I had known Ted during the war, but it had been 15 years... I had really wanted to do something of his, and Charlie Brown was one of the only works I knew doing a Christmas special.” Jones thought that Dr. Seuss was the natural person for such an annual tradition. “So I called up Ted, so I ask him would he be willing to think about doing it? He was anti-Hollywood, very much, because when he left after the war they pirated a lot of his stuff and took his credits off of his features... He did some documentaries—one of which won the Academy Award and someone else took it. So he was pretty sour about that.” How did he persuade Geisel? “I told him this was another field—this was television!—and he didn't know much about televisions either.” 

Ironically, a banking consortium agreed to sponsor the show, which helped Jones sell the Christmas special to the networks. Jones later noted that Dr. Seuss’s publisher should have sponsored the show, because the cartoon doubled sales of the book that year, and they haven’t slowed since.

He was once, under protest, the vice president in charge of children’s programming at ABC.

In 1972, he was hired by ABC TV to be its vice president of children’s programming. “I’m guilty of a lot of sins,” he said, “but that is one I’d just as soon forget.” How did he get the job? “I complained so much about children’s programming that these guys called my bluff. They said come over and do something... well that was a very good idea except nobody listened to me.” He didn’t last long. “I didn’t want to be vice president. I wanted to go back to doing drawings.” 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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