CLOSE
Original image
NBC

9 Live Television Spectacles

Original image
NBC

The hills were alive with the sound of just everybody turning their televisions on to watch NBC’s televised live version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The Sound of Music last night, with the Carrie Underwood- and Stephen Moyer-starring event pulling in a solid 18.5 million viewers. Though the live televised musical format hasn’t been utilized in quite some time, it’s not nearly as foreign as some have made it sound. Though such a thing hadn’t been attempted in 50 years, there have been plenty of other large-scale live events piped into a TV near you over the past decades. 

1. 1955's Peter Pan (And again in 1956 and 1960)

Perhaps the most well-known live television spectacular, NBC’s version of the beloved J.M. Barrie play Peter Pan was also the first full-length Broadway production on color TV. The Mary Martin-starring live version first played on March 7, 1955, with a cast that featured nearly all of the stars of the 1954 Broadway production, and it proved to be wildly popular—it drew a then-record audience of 65 million viewers.

Peter Pan was so popular, in fact, that NBC restaged the whole thing the next year, with another live version hitting the airwaves on January 9, 1956. But even that wasn’t enough to sate hungry viewers, so yet another version was staged on December 8, 1960. This production was a bit different—there were some cast changes, it was expanded into a 100-minute version from the previous 90 minutes, and it was filmed in color for later telecasts. It’s still considered the definitive version of the Martin-starring “Pans” and it remains a perennial favorite.

2. 1957’s Cinderella

The magic of live versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics is not just confined to that new The Sound of Music: The Broadway duo’s Cinderella also got its own live telecast way back in 1957. The production starred no less than Julie Andrews herself, and the CBS telecast aired live on March 31, 1957, ultimately reaching a staggering 100 million viewers.

Despite being a bonafide Disney princess, the story of Cinderella was also lovingly rendered by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and two other film versions—the 1965 Lesley Ann Warren-starring version and the more recent 1997 Brandy Norwood-starring take—draw from the pair’s original work, not the animated classics.

3. 2000’s Fail Safe

It’s not just stage musicals that can go the terrifying live TV route, it’s also heady dramatic stage plays—even heady dramatic stage plays that star George Clooney. Back on April 9, 2000, CBS unleashed a live version of Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Cold War novel Fail Safe on a history-hungry audience. (The book had previously been adapted into a film by Sidney Lumet back in 1964.)

It was an undeniably serious affair—the Stephen Frears-directed special was introduced by Walter Cronkite, it played in black and white, and it featured such glam settings as the Pentagon and a fallout shelter—but it also had a star-studded cast. Clooney was joined by Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel, Noah Wyle, Hank Azaria, Brian Dennehy, Don Cheadle, Sam Elliott, and James Cromwell in the special, which centered on the unexpected fallout when a U.S. bomber is mistakenly ordered to drop a nuke on Moscow.

4. 2005’s The Quartermass Experiment

Five years after Fail Safe, the BBC tried its hand at the super-serious live telecast with a remake of the 1953 series, The Quartermass Experiment. The science fiction serial from Nigel Kneale was adapted to a contemporary setting, starring Jason Flemyng in the eponymous role, an astronaut who is the only man to return from a three-person mission to space (and even he returns…well, different). The special also starred rising actor David Tennant.

The telecast wasn’t without a few bumps—it finished a full 20 minutes early, included limited line flubs and cast stumbles, saw the appearance of a cameraman and a sound guy popping up in a shot, and had two separate interruptions by on-screen graphics announcing the death of Pope John Paul II—but it was a big success for the BBC, as it became the fourth-highest-rated program in BBC Four history.

5. 1980’s The Oldest Living Graduate

Clooney isn’t the only big name star to take to live television for a beloved project—Sally Field did it, too, with The Oldest Living Graduate. Based on the 1974 Preston Jones play of the same name, Field and co-stars Henry Fonda, Timothy Hutton, Harry Dean Stanton, John Lithgow, and Cloris Leachman top-lined the talent-stacked production, which aired on NBC on April 7, 1980.

Filmed at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, the tale of a Texas family and their many machinations, motivations, and maddening issues was a small-scale hit, one that was eventually bolstered by a sad bit of trivia—it marked Fonda’s final stage appearance.

6. 1961’s Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte’s beloved classic has been adapted for the screens—big and small—many times over, but it was only done live on television just once. CBS cut down the rich romance for a slim hour of live television back on April 27, 1961. The Sally Ann Howes- and Zachary Scott-starring drama focused on the middle section of Bronte’s sprawling novel, picking up when young governess Jane first arrives at the foreboding Thornfield Hall and meets the dashing (and dangerous) Mr. Rochester.

Despite its limited runtime, the special is considered a solid take on the material, and one of the very best American versions of the beloved British novel.

7. 1981’s All the Way Home

Just a year after hitting the small screen with the televised version of The Oldest Living Graduate, Sally Field returned to the stage for yet another live telecast of a hard-hitting play. Based on Tad Mosel’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning 1961 play (which was in turn based on James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family), All the Way Home centered on a Tennessee family in the midst of great upheaval and tragedy after the death of their patriarch.

Like The Oldest Living Graduate, the film was broadcast live from a performance, this one staged at the University of Southern California. The live telecast played on NBC on December 21, 1981.

8. 2005’s The West Wing episode “The Debate”

A number of television shows have used the gimmick of a live episode to enthrall audiences, but only a few truly stand out. One such winner is “The Debate,” the seventh episode of The West Wing's seventh season. The beloved series’ final season needed a big bang to get it going, and two live broadcasts, featuring characters going “off script,” seemed like the way to go.

Two live versions of the episode were performed—one for each coast—both starring Alan Alda as Senator Arnold Vinick and Jimmy Smits as Congressman Matt Santos gunning for the presidency in an aggressive, energetic “live presidential debate.” The episode certainly had the appropriate live flavor, and the production’s choice to not include any original cast members only added to that veracity (even as it riled West Wing devotees).

9. 1997’s ER episode, “Ambush”

NBC was no stranger to the live show format: The network quite memorably utilized the technique almost a decade earlier, when medical drama E.R. opened its fourth season with two live episodes.

Unlike “The Debate,” however, “Ambush” used the show’s principal cast to fine effect, while also adhering to an outside gimmick to drive it. The September 25, 1997 double-show was framed as a documentary, with a camera crew invading the E.R. to chronicle the recovery of Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Mark Greene. Along the way, the episode included a near-riot, a heart attack, and the arrival of Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston). The two episodes were successful, despite a few minor mistakes in each (a character drops a pen in one episode, a patient loses his concealed weapon in another).

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
arrow
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES