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The (Court-Ordered) Unmasking of the Lone Ranger

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons/User: We hope

It's not unusual for actors to become so synonymous with the characters they play that they're forever known as that character. Think Adam West as Batman, Wayne Knight as Seinfeld's Newman, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. Usually actors try to avoid this kind of relationship with their characters, but there was one man who really embraced it – Clayton Moore, better known as The Lone Ranger.

Moore played the Ranger on TV from 1949 to 1951, when he was replaced by John Hart, allegedly due to a contract dispute with the producers. But when oil baron-turned-television producer Jack Wrather bought the rights to the Ranger for $3 million in 1954, Moore returned to the saddle again, lasting until 1957 when the show was canceled. During this time, Moore also starred in three Lone Ranger movies – 1955's The Lone Ranger Rides Again, 1956's The Lone Ranger, and 1958's The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold. Between the big screen and 169 episodes of the show, there was no question that Clayton Moore was The Lone Ranger in the eyes of America's kids.

Although the TV show and movies had run their course, that didn't mean Moore was done with his iconic cowboy persona. He was so in love with the character that he quit acting to become the Lone Ranger full-time. Along with a white horse he called Silver, Moore donned the black mask and silver six-gun revolvers to appear at charity events, fairs and festivals, and in paid advertisements. Everywhere he went, he always took time out to talk to youngsters about staying away from drugs, alcohol, smoking, and swearing. The crowds loved him and he was in high demand for years to come.

A Slap in the Face

But Moore's career hit a speed bump in 1978, when Jack Wrather, who still owned the rights to the character, obtained a court order barring him from appearing in public as the Lone Ranger. The suit came because Universal Pictures felt it was time for a new take on the legendary masked man. The reboot was going to be a younger, hipper, more modern cowboy, so the last thing they wanted was a 64-year-old man traveling around the country yelling “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!” Aside from the intellectual property issues, Wrather pointed out that Moore's original contract contained a clause saying that he could not present himself as The Lone Ranger without written consent from Wrather, which Moore had never received.

After a year-long court battle, Moore lost the right to wear the mask in 1979, a move that devastated both him and his fans. Moore was quoted as saying, “It felt like a slap in the face.”

But while Wrather might have won in the eyes of the court, it was Moore who won in the eyes of the public. After the verdict had been handed down, Moore appeared on more than 250 talk shows, now wearing dark, wrap-around sunglasses instead of the mask. In addition, Moore claimed, “I received nearly a half-million passionate, supportive letters” from adoring fans. Perhaps the most famous moment of his post-mask career occurred in 1980, when the popular show Real People ran a story on the controversy. After a taped segment featuring interviews with fans upset over how Moore had been treated, the man himself came onto the stage for a live broadcast interview. The studio audience exploded in riotous applause that lasted so long it ate up the entire time Moore was slated to appear. The producers had to cut away to commercial before he even got the chance to thank his fans for their support.

"Yes, Tonto, I am... the Lone Ranger."

In part because of the bad press surrounding the de-masking of Clayton Moore, when Universal Pictures' The Legend of the Lone Ranger was released in 1981, audiences stayed far away. The picture was a box office bomb, marking the beginning and unceremonious end of the Hollywood career of its young star, Klinton Spilsbury. True to the spirit of the character he loved, in his 1996 autobiography, I Was That Masked Man, Moore had this to say about the film's poor reception: “...many people expected me to feel smug and satisfied. But I would never wish failure on anyone.”

Moore counter-sued Wrather, hoping to regain the right to wear the mask again, but the proceedings carried on for many years until September 20, 1984, when, in a surprise move, Jack Wrather suddenly dropped the case. Although no official reason was given, Wrather died a month later, so it would seem the old man had a change of heart. On October 17, Moore's agent received a letter from Bonita Wrather, Jack's wife, that read, “please be advised that Wrather Corporation hereby grants to Clayton Moore the rights to wear the Lone Ranger mask.” Finally, the Lone Ranger could ride again.

Clayton Moore continued to appear as the Lone Ranger for many years, before dying of a heart attack on December 28, 1999. As any Hollywood icon should, he received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987. However, his is the only star to feature both his name and the name of the character he personified.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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