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10 Heartwarming Facts About Miracle on 34th Street

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For nearly 70 years, George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street has been a go-to holiday classic. Starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood, the film follows a wise-beyond-her-years little girl, her nonbeliever mom, and their lawyer neighbor as they defend the existence of Santa Claus in a New York City courtroom. Suffice it to say, it’s the kind of spirited, burst-your-heart movie that makes you want to spread the Christmas cheer. Now, get to know more about the timeless classic with these 10 things you might not have known about Miracle on 34th Street.

1. THE MOVIE WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED THE BIG HEART.

According to Turner Classic Movies, it was director George Seaton who lobbied for the name The Big Heart. “I am crazy about the title The Big Heart. If we can clear it, it is a natural,” wrote Seaton in a memo to producer William Perlberg. “It is the kind of title like Sentimental Journey [1946] that made such a hit previously with [John Payne and Maureen O’Hara].” It didn’t stick with American audiences, but it was first released under that title in the U.K.

2. VALENTINE DAVIES WAS INSPIRED TO WRITE THE STORY WHILE STANDING IN A LONG LINE AT A DEPARTMENT STORE.

According to TCM, Davies got the idea for the film during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. The long lines and chaos left him to wonder what Santa would’ve thought about such commercialization. After writing the story, he gave the idea to Seaton to turn into a script. In 1947, when the film was released in theaters, Davies also released his novella version of the story.

3. THE STUDIO DIDN’T GET THE CONSENT OF MACY’S AND GIMBELS UNTIL AFTER FILMING HAD CONCLUDED.

Despite the fact that both Macy’s and Gimbels figure prominently in the story, the studio took a gamble by not getting the companies to sign off before using their names. According to TCM, the studio made the companies aware they were going into production, but refused to share footage until filming was completed. Luckily, both department stores were satisfied with the final product.

4. EDMUND GWENN ACTUALLY PLAYED SANTA IN THE 1946 MACY’S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE.

The parade scene was entirely real, and Maureen O’Hara’s autobiography proves it. “Those sequences, like the one with Edmund riding in the sleigh and waving to the cheering crowd, were real-life moments in the 1946 Macy’s parade,” she wrote. “It was a mad scramble to get all the shots we needed, and we got to do each scene only once. It was bitterly cold that day, and Edmund and I envied Natalie and John Payne, who were watching the parade from a window.”

5. NATALIE WOOD STILL BELIEVED IN SANTA.

Natalie Wood was eight years old while filming Miracle on 34th Street. “I still vaguely believed in Santa Claus,” said Wood, as recorded in her biography written by Suzanne Finstad. “I guess I had an inkling that maybe it wasn’t so, but I really did think that Edmund Gwenn was Santa. I had never seen him without his beard because he used to come in early in the morning and spend several hours putting on this wonderful beard and mustache. And at the end of the shoot, when we had a set party, I saw this strange man, without the beard, and I just couldn’t get it together.”

6. THE FILM WAS RELEASED IN THE SUMMER.

Despite being a Christmas movie, Fox’s studio head pushed for the film to be released in the summer. “[Darryl] Zanuck wasn’t sure it would be a success, so he had it released in June, when movie attendance is highest, rather than wait for Christmas,” wrote O’Hara in her autobiography ‘Tis Herself. “In fact, the publicity campaign barely talked about Christmas at all.” Clearly, the strategy worked.

7. THE SAYING KRIS KRINGLE LISTS UNDER DATE OF BIRTH ON HIS MACY’S JOB APPLICATION IS ACTUALLY A LINE BY JONATHAN SWIFT.

One of the memorable moments in the film is when Kris Kringle fills out his employment card. In addition to listing the North Pole as his birthplace and all of his reindeer as his next of kin, Kringle gets clever with his DOB. He writes: “I’m as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth.” The saying famously comes from Irish satirist Jonathan Swift.

8. IN THE SCENE WHERE NATALIE WOOD’S SUSAN WALKER SPOTS HER DREAM HOUSE, IT WAS SO COLD OUTSIDE THE CAMERAS ACTUALLY FROZE.

It seems the whole production was nothing short of a Miracle. While filming the final scene, when Susan spots her dream house, the weather was so cold that production had to stop to let the cameras thaw. In the meantime, as recalled by TCM, a nearby neighbor invited the cast inside for warmth. O’Hara took the woman and her husband to an exclusive New York restaurant that night as a thank you.

9. JOHN PAYNE WROTE A SEQUEL TO THE FILM THAT WAS NEVER PRODUCED. 

According to O’Hara, her co-star loved the film so much he wanted to make a follow-up. “John really believed in ... Miracle on 34th Street, and always wanted to do a sequel,” she wrote in ‘Tis Herself. “We talked about it for years, and he eventually even wrote a screenplay sequel. He was going to send it to me, but tragically died before he could get around to it. I never saw it and have often wondered what happened to it.”

10. GWENN, O’HARA, AND PAYNE WOULD HANG OUT TOGETHER ON NIGHTS THEY WEREN’T FILMING.

It seems the Christmas spirit was alive during production just as much as it is in the final film. In her autobiography, O’Hara recalled the magical evenings she spent with her co-stars. “Each evening, when we were not working, Edmund Gwenn, John, and I went for a walk up Fifth Avenue. Natalie had to go to bed, but we didn’t. We stopped and window-shopped at all the stores, which were beautifully decorated for the holidays,” wrote O’Hara. “Edmund especially loved those nights and acted more like the kid who might be getting the presents instead of the Santa who would be giving them. I got such a big kick out of seeing the expressions of windows dressers when they saw Edmund peering in at them—I knew then that he was going to make a big splash as Santa Claus ... Everyone felt the magic on the set and we all knew we were creating something special.”

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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