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Paley Center

Free to Be...You and Me Turns 40

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Paley Center

Forty years ago this week, the TV special Free to Be...You and Me aired on ABC. Based on the 1972 best-selling record and book, the special starred Free to Be creator Marlo Thomas and featured the likes of Rosey Grier, Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, a teenage Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, and Kris Kristofferson, many of whom had also participated in the album.

The special would go on to earn an Emmy and, after 16mm prints were cut, a regular slot in the school curriculum of 35 states for many years to come (not to mention some pretty valuable real estate in the hearts and minds of children born in the seventies). According to Thomas, she is still regularly asked to participate in Free to Be events across the country.

To celebrate the anniversary, the stars of the special, including Thomas, Grier, Alda, Gloria Steinem, and Carole Hart, participated in a panel discussion at the Paley Center on Wednesday.

Here are a few things we learned from the evening.

1. Aunts Are People

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The idea for Free to Be came to Marlo Thomas—then most famous for her starring role on That Girl, in which she played Ann Marie, a career girl who didn’t want to get married—as she was reading a bedtime story to her 5-year-old niece Dionne. Thomas was shocked to discover all the books available to her niece were the same books she had been read when she was a little girl, and “it had taken me 30 years to get over them.” When Thomas went to the bookstore the next day in search of better fare, she found the state of children’s fiction was “worse than I thought.” On the shelves she discovered the especially abyssmal I’m Glad I’m A Boy, I’m Glad I’m A Girl. Sample text: “Boys invent things, girls use what boys invent.” Says Thomas: “I almost had a heart attack right there.” 

She quickly decided to make a “little record” for Dionne and on the recommendation of Shel Silverstein went to legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who put her in touch with some well known children’s writers. Disappointed with the results, and worried children of the seventies were too “hip” and wouldn’t be satisfied with simply sing-songy lyrics, Thomas instead turned to Broadway in the hopes of doing something “really jazzy for kids.” The result was an album written and composed by some of the leading lyricists and musicians of the day.

2. ABC Wanted to Cut Three Songs

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According to Thomas, there were three pieces the TV powers-that-be wanted to cut from the special. The first two were "William Wants A Doll" and "It’s Alright to Cry," because the network was worried showing them “would make every boy in America a sissy…that wasn’t the word they used.”

They also had a problem with "Parents are People," not because of the lyrics, says Thomas, but because there was concern that the scene featuring her and Harry Belafonte wheeling their own baby buggies down a sidewalk made it seem as though the two were married. The network told Thomas they “couldn’t put that out and certainly couldn’t play it in the South.”

3. All three pieces made it to air.

The day the special aired, one Boston critic cautioned parents to "keep your children away from the set."

4. Michael Jackson Never Felt Free to Take His Own Advice

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One of the special's songs, "When We Grow Up"—about learning to accept ourselves for who we are—was performed by Roberta Flack and a teenage Michael Jackson. The two sing to each other through a mirror:

And I don't care if you never get tall.
I like what you look like...
... and you're nice small.
We don't have to change at all.

Sadly, Jackson was unable to absorb the advice he so sweetly sang about. Tony Walton, the production designer for both Free to Be and The Wiz, says that on the set of the latter Jackson was particularly grateful for his Scarecrow costume. “I had given him a little cupcake cup to put on his nose,” recounted Walton, “and he started crying, and I said ‘oh, is this upsetting?’” Responded Jackson: “I cannot tell you how happy I am, my father has always called me ‘big nose’ and so my brothers always called me ‘big nose,’ too, so I am really conscious of how ugly I am to them.”

5. What does this have to do with M.S.?

The money raised from Free to Be initially went to the Ms. Foundation for Women, a non-profit organization founded in 1973 by Gloria Steinem, Patricia Carbine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Marlo Thomas as a way to funnel back (anticipated) profits from Ms. magazine into the feminist movement (later, FTBYM would establish its own foundation). Not everyone in those days was familiar with Ms., however, and when Mel Brooks arrived on set to do his part he exclaimed, “I’m happy to do this for Marlo but what does this have to do with Multiple Sclerosis?”

6. Free to be…Free (Or always read the fine print!)

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Because of her various showbiz connections, Thomas was able to get people to participate for free. That said, it turned out there was a lot of money to be made by taking children seriously, and the good will of those who signed on to participate gratis paid off in the end. Literally. According to writer Dan Greenburg, the contract stated “very clearly I was to get no money. And lo and behold, I never read the boilerplate, which apparently said that beyond a certain amount, people started getting paid. And the money started coming in!”

Come along, take my hand, sing a song

No really. They really mean it. This is how the evening ended.

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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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