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The Disney Songbook: Richard Sherman and Alan Menken in Concert

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Along with several thousand other Disney enthusiasts, I recently got the opportunity to see two living legends perform the songs that formed our childhoods. The show started at 6:30 p.m.; people started lining up at 1:30. Somewhere during my second hour of waiting, I wondered to myself, "Is this really worth it?" The answer ended up being yes—so worth it.

Let's start with Mr. Sherman. As the younger half of the famous Sherman Brothers songwriting duo, Sherman is responsible for a mindboggling number of the old Disney classics, from Mary Poppins to Winnie the Pooh. The brothers got their big break writing for Annette Funicello, so he started with a couple of her songs: "Tall Paul" and "Pineapple Princess." Here's the latter:

I think you can tell even from these brief clips, but Sherman just exudes positivity and gratitude and warmth. And "He's a really good winker," according to Jason Schwartzman, who plays the songwriter in the upcoming movie Saving Mr. Banks. Speaking of which, Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, who plays Robert Sherman, made a surprise appearance during the show to join Sherman on "A Spoonful of Sugar" from Mary Poppins:

"I Wan'na Be Like You" from The Jungle Book is one of my favorite Disney songs, so I was delighted to hear Sherman describe how they had to teach Phil Harris (Baloo) scat so he could sing the song with Louis Prima (King Louie):

One of Sherman's last songs was "Feed the Birds," the tearjerker from Mary Poppins, which happened to be Walt Disney's personal favorite, and one that he requested of the Sherman Brothers every Friday. "We were all very fond of him as a human being, aside from being a great boss," Sherman said.

After Sherman's set, Menken came out to play his hits. Basically, if you've had a Disney song stuck in your head since 1989 or so, there's a good chance Menken wrote it. He started with the movie that put him and former songwriting partner Howard Ashman on the Disney map—The Little Mermaid.

After The Little Mermaid, of course, came Beauty and the Beast.

If you're a fan of Aladdin—are there people who aren't? —you'll be excited to know that it's coming to Broadway, complete with a couple of sidekicks that were cut from the animated feature. There's a link to one of those songs at the bottom of this post, but the video below is a medley of hits from the original movie.

Although Menken described this film as "a big, fat, flop movie," Newsies has evolved to be a cult classic and is now doing great on Broadway. Menken also does a pretty respectable Jeffrey Katzenberg impression, so you'll want to check that out:

Tangled is in regular rotation at our house, but even so, it was surprising to hear Menken say that Rapunzel is now the most popular Disney princess. Menken said he heard that Rapunzel was on Walt's movie list, so he was especially excited to be the songwriter for the movie.

When Menken was done, Richard Sherman came back out so each composer could close the show with their songs about the world. "A Whole New World" from Aladdin for Menken, and "It's a Small World" for Sherman. If you've never heard Sherman's version of the song that everybody loves to hate, I encourage you to check this video out—it will change the way you think about it.

If you'd like to hear more of Sherman and Menken, links to all of the songs they performed at the D23 Expo are below.
Thanks to mrdaps, InsideTheMagic and disneylandlive, who all had much better seats than I did.



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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]