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9 Famous Artists Who Began as Street Performers

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The Spanish word buscar, which means to seek, gave us the term “busker.” The art of busking, or street performing, gave us these household names.

1. Rod Stewart


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According to the man himself, there are only two things Rod Stewart can do: play football (yes, soccer) and sing. When it came to doing one professionally, music became the only choice after he failed to make the Brentford F.C. team. While the fame, money, and model wives would suggest that it all worked out for Stewart, it didn’t always seem that way. After a disappointing experience with his first band, The Raiders, Stewart took his then undesired voice to the streets of London, where he teamed up with English folk musician Wizz Jones. Together, they traveled throughout Europe playing music and sleeping under bridges until Stewart was deported from Spain for vagrancy. Ultimately, that vagrant ended up selling 100 million records worldwide.

2. Tracy Chapman


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While a student at Tufts University, Tracy Chapman would sing and play her guitar in nearby Harvard Square—a place so desired by buskers for its heavy foot traffic that people have to obtain a permit from the Cambridge Arts Council to perform there. Through playing the streets and various coffee houses in the area, Chapman gained a fan in Brian Koppelman, a fellow Tufts student whose father, Charles Koppelman, was in charge of a record label. The elder Koppelman introduced her to influential people in the music business, including producer David Kershenbaum, and in 1987, right after graduating, she was signed to Elektra Records. By 1988, she had a critically-acclaimed album and was performing for Nelson Mandela at his 70th birthday tribute concert.

3. Robin Williams


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If Robin Williams seems like the kind of person you’d try and avoid while walking around New York City, that’s because, at one point, he was. While studying in an advanced program at the prestigious Juilliard School—only two students were accepted into it: he and Christopher Reeve—Williams worked as a mime outside of The Museum of Modern Art for some extra cash. Everything came up roses and giant bags of money for Williams though, as he’d go on to win an Academy Award, Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys, all for projects that involved him talking.

4. Eddie Izzard

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British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard says he has known he wanted to be a performer since he was seven years old, but it wasn’t until he began studying accounting at the University of Sheffield that he tried his hand at comedy. Along with a school friend, he regularly performed in Covent Garden, a district in the West End of London. Their partnership didn’t last long, but Izzard would spend a great deal of the '80s performing on the streets of Europe. In the early '90s, he began to gain some notoriety in the British comedy community and in 2000 he won two Emmys for his one-man show “Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill,” which was produced by fellow former street performer Robin Williams.

5. B.B. King

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Before he was “B.B. King,” Riley B. King was just a kid playing his guitar on the streets of Mississippi for change. King would perform in up to four different towns a night. Eventually he made his way to Memphis, which was home to numerous blues and jazz legends, including his cousin Bukka White. While there, he performed amongst his fellow greats and landed a gig as a radio DJ. Needing a new name for the airwaves, King went with “Beale Street Blues Boy,” a nod to the music-filled Beale Street in downtown Memphis. That moniker was shortened to “Blues Boy” and then, simply “B.B.” Now, everyone knows B.B. and his guitar Lucille.

6. Pierce Brosnan

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Shaken and stirred by moving from Ireland to England in his youth, Brosnan couldn’t wait to get out of his London classroom—where his nickname was “Irish”—and into the art world. While training to be a commercial illustrator, he attended a workshop where a fire eater taught him the craft. Soon enough, he had one of the hottest acts on the streets and caught the attention of a circus agent. That stint let to classes at Drama Centre London, which got his acting off the ground and eventually into an Aston Martin.

7. Bernie Mac

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You can’t just wake up one morning and call yourself one of the “Original Kings of Comedy.” OK, you can, but you’d be living a lie if you didn't have the credentials to back it up like Bernie Mac did. Before the major motion pictures and network sitcom, Mac was telling jokes throughout the South Side of Chicago. The two years he spent playing the streets made the man fearless; you may remember him beginning his first set on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam by telling the audience, “I ain’t scared of you motherf***ers.” In 2012, a portion of West 69th Street in the Englewood neighborhood where he grew up was honorarily named "Bernie Mac Street."

8. Jewel


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The pride of Homer, Alaska, Jewel Kilcher had just finished her first semester at a fine arts school in Michigan when she decided to travel the country as a street performer. With her guitar, the four chords she knew how to play on it, and a skinning knife for protection, Jewel managed to make it as far as Mexico. After graduating, Jewel returned to drifting and lived out of her car. She played coffee shops around San Diego until she signed with Atlantic Records. Her debut album, Pieces of You, would go on to sell 12 million copies in the United States alone. Hopefully counting all of that money wasn’t too much for those small hands of hers.

9. Benjamin Franklin


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Author, diplomat, founding father, inventor, printer, postmaster, scientist, street performer—Ben Franklin was pretty much everything but president. As a youngster in Boston, Franklin would perform songs and read poems he wrote that commented on current events, which he'd then sell prints of to his fellow colonists. His meddling father didn't want his son busking around town so he put an end to little Ben's street act once and for all. After growing up under that regime, it’s no wonder he became such an advocate for free speech.

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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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