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Stacy Conradt
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Grave Sightings: Charlie Parker

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Stacy Conradt

Legendary jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker was just 34 when he died of pneumonia in 1955, but he packed a lot of living into those few decades. In fact, his body was so ravaged from years of drug and alcohol addiction that the coroner who conducted his autopsy initially estimated Parker at 55 or 60 years old.

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Black and white photo of jazz musician Charlie
Charlie Parker playing the saxophone at the Three Deuces jazz club in New York in 1947.

To add insult to injury, Parker’s final resting place in Kansas City, Missouri is about 1200 miles away from where he wanted to be buried, according to his common-law wife, Chan Parker. She said Bird wanted to be buried in Long Island next to his daughter, who had died from a heart condition at the age of 2. Parker’s mother, however, wanted him home in Missouri. Ultimately, a committee of Parker’s friends claimed his body at the funeral home and sent it home to his mother. Addie Parker had her son interred at Lincoln Cemetery on the outskirts of town and was buried next to him when she died in 1967.

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Gravestone of jazz musician Charlie Parker and his mother, Addie Parker, including birth dates, death dates, and an engraving of a bird and a saxophone.
Stacy Conradt

But Bird's afterlife problems don’t end there. His name was misspelled as "Charley" Parker in his Kansas City obituary. And the marker that designates his final resting place has been plagued with problems since the day it was installed. The original headstone listed the wrong death date—March 23 instead of March 12—and though the egregious engraving error was eventually fixed, the whole thing was later stolen in 1992. It took two years to get a replacement, and when it arrived, there was a new mistake: The engraving above the name is a tenor saxophone. Parker played the alto.

In 1998, there was some talk of having Parker moved from the out-of-the-way, difficult-to-find cemetery. Fans, including then-mayor of Kansas City Emanuel Cleaver, had a more fitting resting place in mind: 18th and Vine, a historic jazz location in Kansas City proper where the American Jazz Museum now stands. Cleaver even requested $25,000 from the City Council to help move the city’s famous son. “It will be much more than a grave,” he said. “It will be a shrine. It will take up about half a block behind the museum. I believe having Charlie Parker’s grave near the museum is almost as important as having the home base near the playing field.”

Unfortunately for Cleaver, the request was denied, and to this day, Parker remains in Lincoln Cemetery. Even so, the obscure spot gets pretty lively every year on Parker’s birthday when the local jazz community shows up to serenade him with a New Orleans-style “21 Sax Salute.”

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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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