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A Brief History of the Industrial Musical

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Post-WWII, behind closed doors in the United States' bustling businesses, a peculiar bit of showbiz was born: the industrial musical. These lavish shows were put on to boost the morale of a workforce while imparting brand platitudes. If you've never heard of industrial musicals, you're in good company. None of these elaborate productions were ever meant to be seen by the public, even though the creative minds behind them had names that lit up Broadway.

Why would companies put on shows for employees who'd probably rather see a bonus?

In today's less secure economy, an expenditure like a musical seems downright gauche. In the context of post-war America, however, the atmosphere was quite different, largely because of the surging economy, which was helping the musical theater industry experience its own boom. Productions like West Side Story, Damn Yankees, and Guys and Dolls achieved mass popularity and made it to the silver screen. Corporate America noticed and figured that shows tailor-made for their companies would have similar appeal. What better way to liven up stodgy industry events than to put on a big, rollicking show made by bona fide writers, performers, and musicians?

What workers got were shows like this one from the mid-1950s, put on for the Chevrolet sales force (never mind the guy at 2:24 celebrating his grandmother's curvy physique):

Who Produced These Shows?

The thought of "selling out" didn't worry the talented and well-known theater professionals who put on these shows—they were happy to take the job. People like Kander and Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) and Bock and Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) penned industrial musicals extolling the virtues of General Electric, Oldsmobile, Coca-Cola, and more. This illustrious pool of talent wrote songs that could have easily passed for traditional musical theater numbers, had they not been about lightbulbs or family sedans.

The 1966 industrial musical Go Fly a Kite, presented by General Electric and written by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Walter Marks, was performed at that year's Electric Utility Executives Conference. It featured the catchy song "PDM Can Do," about the exciting world of power distribution management:

Can you spot and forecast trouble,
Switch equipment in and out? -- Can do! Can do!
Can you sense things well enough to make reports about? -- Can do! Can do!
We can read folks' meters and make out the bills they get!
What can't we do? -- The waltz, I bet.

It's not easy to find material from these shows, but bits and pieces are out there, including this gloriously weird (and flat-out politically incorrect) short film made for Dodge starring the great musical satirist and scientist Tom Lehrer (writer of "The Elements," sung here by Daniel Radcliffe):

Note the Dodge-friendly jabs at their automotive competitors: "Only squares today drive a Chevrolet!"

The Bathrooms Are Coming!

Sometimes, industrial musicals were downright bizarre. In Everything's Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, authors Sport Murphy and Steve Young reveal rare lyrics and promotional materials for tons of these shows, including the 1969 American-Standard production, The Bathrooms Are Coming!, which featured catchy tunes about toilets. Murphy said that Young recently found a full-length film of Bathrooms and described it as "fascinatingly awkward." This is certainly apparent when you consider the privacy of your everyday commode while listening to the ballad "My Bathroom."

The best resource for industrial musical media is the companion site for Everything's Coming Up Profits, which features a handful of songs and links to even more on iTunes. The book is a wealth of information about this genre of shows and discusses the many recognizable names involved. A pre-Brady Bunch Florence Henderson got her start in industrial musicals as well as Ernie Cefalu, whose album design for the International Paper Company show Dolls Alive! led to his later work, the Rolling Stones' Forty Licks cover.

Murphy says that we outsiders are not the only ones who might find the industrial musical genre a little bit ridiculous. These shows were really meant to serve as a "pressure valve" for everyone from the CEO to the workers on assembly lines, providing some "gentle ribbing" that was just self-aware enough to make it easier to look each other in the eyes at meetings.

The Death of the Industrial Musical

Like many fads, the industrial musical faded. Rather than go through the trouble of staging a whole show, celebrity appearances became the preferred corporate attraction, a practice that has survived, but nowadays can be met with minor scandal and resentment. But fans of nostalgia, musicals, and good ol' American industrial might should be tickled to learn about this oddly glamorous mid-century movement.

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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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