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The 19th Century Aristocrat Who Literally Painted The Town Red

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If you paint the town red, then you have a riotously, recklessly good time. But what does painting—and, for that matter, painting things red—have to do with what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “to go out drinking, dancing, etc.”?

Well, as always with these kinds of things, there are a number of etymological theories. But English folklore will have you believe that the phrase alludes to one drunken night, and one drunken aristocrat, in particular.

According to legend, at the root of painting the town red is Henry de la Poer Beresford. Despite being an Eton- and Oxford-educated aristocrat (he became the 3rd Marquess of Waterford after the death of his father in 1826) Beresford was a notorious hooligan, whose entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography perfectly sums up his character:

"[Beresford] returned to Eton in 1838 to steal the headmaster’s whipping block, an exploit [he] celebrated with an annual dinner. He matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1829, but was invited to leave, and for the next decade he was to be found most frequently at the racetrack, on the hunting-field, or in the police courts. His favoured companions were young 'sporting men,' prize-fighters, and prostitutes; powerfully built, rich, and with an uncontrolled sense of humour, it amused him to challenge passers-by to fight him, to break windows, to upset (literally) apple carts … When, as frequently occurred, his activities landed him in court, he laughed at (and paid) the derisory fines which were designed to control the excesses of the working class, not those of the apparently limitlessly wealthy aristocracy."

In fact, Beresford’s extraordinary and seemingly unstoppable misbehavior even saw him considered a suspect in the unsolved case of Spring-Heeled Jack, an acrobatic fire-breathing reprobate who terrorized London in the late 1830s, half a century before Jack the Ripper. But Beresford’s bad behavior appears to have been more hedonistic than it was dangerous or anarchic—as evidenced by the night he and his friends spent in the sleepy Leicestershire countryside.

In the early hours of April 6, 1837, Beresford and a group of companions arrived at the tollgate of Melton Mowbray, a small town about 20 miles outside of Nottingham. After a day of gambling, hunting, and (all but non-stop) drinking at the Croxton Park races, Beresford and his crew were in typically boisterous form—and in no mood to be held up by a sleepy tollgate operator. Unfortunately for the operator, the gatehouse was in the midst of being repaired and alongside it were strewn workmen’s ladders, tools, and pots of paint. Seeing an opportunity for mischief, Beresford grabbed the paint and began daubing it over the tollgate (and, according to the story, the tollgate keeper himself). From there, he and his friends headed into town.

In the center of Melton Mowbray, Beresford’s riotous group continued their unruly rampage. The pub sign was torn down. The post office window was smashed. Gardens were trampled. A police constable who tried to intervene was knocked to the ground. And through it all, everything—walls, windows, doors, signposts, and even the policeman’s face and neck—were daubed in bright red paint.

The following morning, the people of Melton Mowbray were in an uproar. Beresford and his companions were promptly arrested and made to cover the cost of all repairs; eventually, they were charged with common assault, and fined an eye-watering £100 each (equivalent to more than $12,000 today). Beresford’s night of quite literally “painting the town red” had cost him dearly.

There’s no doubt that Beresford’s night of unruliness certainly took place: Records from the Derby Assizes document Beresford’s sentencing, and an article published in New Sporting Magazine in 1838 described a notorious “spree” that “took place in Melton Mowbray last season,” immortalized in an illustration by an artist named “Mr. R. Ackermann [of] 191 Regent Street.” In the picture, an unnamed group of gentlemen in scarlet-colored hunting jackets are depicted daubing paint on the sign of the local pub and attacking a police officer:

"Three gentlemen in scarlet coats, small-clothes, and silk stockings … are seen engaged in painting the sign of the White Swan red; and two others of the same class are perceived painting the window of the Post Office in the same manner. Another of those 'bloods' is making a stroke with his brush at the back of a flying watchman; two others, like regular gutter-bullies, are engaged in personal contest with two watchmen, and three MEN in scarlet have a single watchman down and are daubing his face with paint."

But as genuine as Beresford’s actions were, there’s a problem when it comes to connecting his paint-throwing night in Melton Mowbray with the origin of painting the town red: The expression did not appear in print until July 1883, almost half a century after Beresford’s night on the tiles. Not only that, but its earliest written record comes not from some local Leicestershire newspaper, but from The New York Times:

"Mr. James Hennessy offered a resolution that the entire body proceed forthwith to Newark and get drunk … Then the Democrats charged upon the street cars, and being wafted into Newark proceeded, to use their own metaphor, to 'paint the town red.'"

Could the events of April 6, 1837 really have inspired an expression that not only found its way across the Atlantic, but that no one sought to put in print for another 50 years? It seems unlikely—and instead, several more straightforward theories have been proposed.

Perhaps painting the town red alludes to the reddishness of a drinker’s face or nose, or else to blood spilled in drunken bar brawls or arguments? Perhaps it alludes to the bright red color of celebratory fireworks, or to revelers who stay up so late that they see in the dawn? Or perhaps it’s a reference to shady red light districts, or to the bleary red eyes of heavy drinkers or partiers? They’re all plausible theories. But until any further written evidence is unearthed, all we can presume is that the expression painting the town red first emerged in mid- to late 19th-century American slang, before steadily gaining wider currency elsewhere. And whether the Marquess of Beresford literally “painting a town red” is its true inspiration or not, it’s still a superb etymological side note.

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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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