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15 Quirky Facts About Ally McBeal

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For everything that can be said about Ally McBeal, its uniqueness can’t be argued. David E. Kelley’s legal dramedy—which aired its season finale 15 years ago today—was the talk of the country in the final few years of the 20th century with its dancing babies and (controversially) willowy stars. Here are some things you might not have known about the series that launched the careers of Calista Flockhart, Portia de Rossi, Lucy Liu, and Jane Krakowski.

1. IT WAS CREATED TO BE ON AFTER MELROSE PLACE.

With the promise of full creative control, Fox asked David E. Kelley—whose legal drama The Practice debuted six months before Ally McBeal—to create a show that would keep females in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic from changing the channel after Melrose Place on Monday nights. Their general directive was to create a show about “young, ambitious, and sexually supercharged business executives.” The former lawyer decided to make his characters attorneys.

2. BRIDGET FONDA WAS OFFERED THE ROLE OF ALLY.

In 1999 Fonda said she "refused to read the script for fear I might really like it. I’ve never wanted to do TV. I love feature films too much.”

3. FLOCKHART WAS TIRED AT HER AUDITION.

The stage actress was one of “hundreds” of actresses who tried out for the part (including Lara Flynn Boyle). "I was jet-lagged and tired, so I just went in there and thought, 'Well, whatever happens, happens,'" Flockhart told People Magazine in 1998. "When she walked in on a cold reading, she just was Ally," Kelley added.

4. FLOCKHART AND GIL BELLOWS ALREADY KNEW EACH OTHER.

Before the role of Billy—Ally's ex-turned-boss—was cast, the producers wanted Gil Bellows and Flockhart (who had already been cast as Ally) to read together. "I knew Calista from New York and knew she was a great actress," Bellows told MovieWeb. "They said they'd like to see us in a room together, so we met up ... and we had a scene together and then just sat side by side and talked a little bit." The next day Bellows was told to "hop on a plane and come shoot the pilot." Even though Bellows initially only signed a one-year contract, his character stayed for three.

5. "TELL HIM" WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE THE THEME SONG.

Kelley wanted Vonda Shepard’s cover of the 1962 Bert Berns song "Tell Him" to kick off the episodes; Shepard and her manager were hoping that Kelley would choose her original song, “Searching My Soul,” instead. After speeding the song up and cutting it down to one minute, Kelley changed his mind and did just that.

"Searching My Soul" had been released by Shepard in 1991 who, after recording two albums for Warner Bros., was dropped by the label. Fortunately for her, Kelley was a fan.

6. THE DANCING BABY WAS ON THE WEB BEFORE IT WAS ON THE SHOW.

The dancing baby was born in 1996, when Michael Girard wanted to display the capabilities of his animation software product, Kinetix Character Studio. When an Ally McBeal executive producer saw it, he knew it would work for the show as a way to acknowledge Ally’s biological clock.

7. ALLY WAS ON A COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE THAT ASKED IF FEMINISM WAS DEAD.

A few months after Newsweek called her "the quintessential postfeminist,” TIME’s June 29, 1998 cover—which featured the faces of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Ally McBeal—posed the question: Is feminism dead? In a season two episode, Ally told John Cage (Peter MacNicol) that she had a dream she was on the cover of TIME as "the face of feminism."

8. PORTIA DE ROSSI WAS AN ACCIDENTAL METHOD ACTOR.

De Rossi had studied law at the University of Melbourne. Her interest in law disappeared once her acting career got going and she subsequently moved from Australia to Los Angeles. In 1998, she joined the show and got her big break in Hollywood as attorney Nelle Porter.

9. LUCY LIU’S MANAGER MADE HER PLAY LING WOO.

Liu initially auditioned to play Nelle. Even though Kelley liked her enough that he created the character of Ling Woo for her, Liu was set on taking a role in a play over what was initially going to just be a one-time appearance. Her manager thought otherwise: "She told me I was going to pass on the play that time and I was going to do this show, and that was that," Liu told Metro in 2014. "Then, of course, it became such a part of the zeitgeist and changed my career."

10. FOR A SHORT TIME THERE WAS A HALF-HOUR SITCOM VERSION OF THE SHOW.

In 1999, Fox ran Ally—a show that re-edited previous episodes into 30-minute installments, cutting out the courtroom stuff and adding in some unused scenes in the process. (The hope was that a 30-minute version had a better chance at syndication.) Less than half of its regular one-hour audience tuned in, so it was canceled after 10 episodes.

11. COURTNEY THORNE-SMITH QUIT THE SHOW BECAUSE SHE WASN’T EATING ENOUGH.

The actress who played Georgia Thomas admitted she pushed herself too hard to look thin for the show. "I started undereating, overexercising, pushing myself too hard, and brutalizing my immune system," she told US Weekly. "The amount of time I spent thinking about food and being upset about my body was insane."

12. LISA NICOLE CARSON BATTLED WITH BIPOLAR DISORDER.

After Carson had a breakdown in a hotel room, the McBeal and ER actress was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Given medication, she returned to work on the show and told Essence that "Everybody on the show was wonderful to me, but my contract wasn’t renewed for the final season. Nobody gave me an explanation, but I assumed it had to do with what had happened. I was devastated."

13. ALLY WAS SUPPOSED TO MARRY ROBERT DOWNEY JR.

In season four, Robert Downey Jr. joined the series as lawyer Larry Paul, who was supposed to marry Ally in the season finale. The title of the episode in question—"The Wedding"—remained, even after Downey was arrested on a drug-related charge and Kelley was forced to re-write “The Wedding” entirely, without Downey's presence.

14. DOWNEY JR.’S LOSS WAS JOSH GROBAN’S GAIN.

The rewritten version of "The Wedding" centered around a high school student (played by Josh Groban) suing a girl for dumping him as a prom date. Groban’s singing performance at the end of the episode led to three interview requests the following morning; they were his first three interviews ever.

15. KELLEY WROTE OR CO-WROTE ALL BUT ONE EPISODE.

The season five episode “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the lone episode out of the series' 112 installments where Kelley didn’t receive a writing credit. He tended to write each episode on yellow legal pads, in four days.

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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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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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