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The First Words of 11 Famous People

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There are plenty of stories about the last words of famous people, some true, many apocryphal. The last words of John Quincy Adams were “This is the last of Earth! I am content.” Oscar Wilde’s were “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” For Douglas Fairbanks Sr. it was “Never felt better.” Less well known are the first words of the famous. Since no one can predict how famous a baby might turn out to be, the first words of the famous are often left unrecorded. But that doesn’t mean they are always lost to history. Here are 11 famous people whose biographies report their first words.

1. George Orwell: “Beastly”

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When Eric Blair (later to take the pen name George Orwell) was around 18 months old, stuck in bed with a severe bout of bronchitis, he uttered his first word, “beastly.” According to Gordon Bowker in his book George Orwell, the tot's mother recorded the event in her diary. The word stayed with him, appearing in every book he wrote except for the one most infused with the idea of beastliness, Animal Farm

2. Picasso: “Piz”

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Picasso could draw before he could speak, and he first learned to ask for things by drawing pictures of them. His first word was “piz,” his baby pronunciation of lápiz, the Spanish word for “pencil.” He would say it in order to get his mother to give him a pencil, Arianna Huffington wrote in Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.

3. Bill Clinton: “Pappaw”

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Bill Clinton’s baby book records his first word as “Pappaw,” the name he used for his grandpa. His father died before he was born, and he lived with his mother and grandparents. According to biographer David Maraniss in First in His Class, the word was “his first political decision, the safest choice, for if Billy had babbled something resembling ‘Mama,’ his mother and grandmother might have argued over which one of them he meant.” 

4. E.E. Cummings: “Hurrah!”

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E.E. Cummings’s mother kept a detailed diary of the life of baby Estlin. His first word was “Hurrah!” which he shouted while joining in with the chorus of the Civil War song “Marching Through Georgia” as his father sang it to him. By his second birthday, according to Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno in his biography of the poet, he could sing the whole thing, along with other songs (though, as his mother notes, he would often “make up words”).

5. Neil Young: “Dombeen”

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Neil Young’s father Scott wrote a biography of his son called Neil and Me, where he reports that Neil’s first word was “dombeen.” It meant “pudding, celery, pablum, porridge, and numerous other things he would point at while saying, encouragingly, ‘dombeen.’” Neil was also “a very fat child, mostly because he ate everything he could reach.”

6. Julie Andrews: “Home”

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Julie Andrews’s memoir begins, “I am told the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was ‘home.’” According to her parents, she said it as they were pulling up to their house in the car. It came out with a slight rising intonation, as if she was testing out the word. Her parents wanted to be sure she had really said it, so they drove around the block in order to approach the house again, and she repeated the performance. “The word has carried enormous resonance for me ever since.”

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Up”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mother kept a baby book for him, where she recorded that he spoke his first word, “up,” on July 6, 1897, according to Andrew Turnbull's biography of the writer. She also recorded some of his memorable sayings, including, “Mother, when I get to be a big boy can I have all the things I oughtn’t to have?”

8. Amelia Earhart: “Papa”

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According to Susan Wels in The Thrill of It, Amelia Earhart’s mother kept a baby book called “Queer Doings and Quaint Saying of Baby Earhart” in which she had inscribed a quote from John Ruskin: “Shakespeare has no heroes; he has only heroines.” Baby Amelia was “tall with a beautifully shaped head and hands,” and her first word was “Papa.” Though her father’s struggle with alcoholism caused a lot of difficulty in her early life, he supported her ambitions, and even arranged for her first airplane ride.

9. Steven Spielberg: “Why?”

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Steven Spielberg’s aunt Natalie claimed in an interview that his first word was “why?” In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Natalie as saying, “He’d see a shadow on the wall and want to know why it was there…I used to baby-sit for him, and I can tell you, he was something. You just had to answer every question, and then there would be more."

10. Martin Amis: “Bus”

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In his book Experience, Martin Amis says, “apart from infantile renderings of ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ and ‘Philip,’ ‘bus’ was the first word I ever uttered. And throughout my childhood in Swansea I had a helpless passion for the great blood-red double-deckers, and I would ride them, with no destination in mind, for hour after hour and day after day.”

11. Russell Brand: “Don’t do that.”

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Though Russell Brand is known for his unfettered hedonistic tendencies, his first words, “don’t do that,” were a request for a little restraint. Or maybe not. He asks in his memoir, My Booky Wook, “Why is that the first thing I said? What kind of infancy was I having that before I learned ‘mum,’ or ‘dad,’ I learned, ‘Could you stop? Whatever it is that’s going on, just pack it in…’ On reflection, it was probably because I’d just been told not to do something that I made this my debut proclamation, rather than because I had the pressing need to bring some unpleasant incident to a conclusion.” He adds, “more normal words like ‘bird,’ ‘clock’ and ‘mum’ did follow fairly soon after, and ‘tis good that I’ve got a mum who remembers all them things. In fact, my childhood can’t have been that bad if someone loved me enough to document my first words.”

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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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