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8 Chimpanzee Stars

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Chimpanzees, along with gorillas and orangutans, are our closest relatives among all the animals on the planet. Chimps are intelligent, artistic, emotional, and so darn cute! On the other hand, you could say that about human movie and TV stars. But chimpanzees have some extra advantages in entertainment: they are small, they look funny dressed as humans because of the relative size and shape of their arms and legs, and they have few inhibitions. Plus, they don't demand large salaries or champagne in their dressing rooms!

1. Cheeta

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Tarzan's sidekick was a chimpanzee named Cheeta, but only in the movies. The books by Edgar Rice Burroughs never mentioned him, or any other chimp for that matter. The character Cheeta first appeared in the 1932 Johnny Weismuller movie Tarzan the Ape Man. Beginning with the third Tarzan movie, Tarzan Escapes in 1936, Cheeta was played by a chimp originally named Jiggs who appeared in a dozen Tarzan movies as Cheeta, and a couple more as a nameless chimpanzee. The simian actor eventually became known by the name Cheeta, even when he was playing other characters. His last film role was in Dr. Doolittle in 1967. Cheeta celebrated his 75th birthday on April 9, 2007! The above picture shows Cheeta enjoying a birthday message from Jane Goodall. He even has his own MySpace page.

2. Bonzo

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Future US president Ronald Reagan starred in Bedtime for Bonzo in 1951. Reagan played a professor who attempts to teach Bonzo morality as an experiment. Bonzo was played by a chimp named Peggy. Yes, Bonzo was a girl! She reprised the role in the 1953 sequel, Bonzo Goes to College.

More chimps, in chronological order, after the jump.

3. J. Fred Muggs

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It's hard to believe The Today Show has been on the air for 56 years. When the show debuted in 1952 with host Dave Garroway, it wasn't an immediate hit. On January 28, 1953, Garroway got a sidekick, a baby chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs. Muggs would play the piano, pretend to read the paper, and participate in skits. He was the first animal regular on a live TV show. Muggs appeared regularly through 1957, and made The Today Show a hit with viewers and advertisers. You can see a video of J. Fred Muggs upstaging Gene Rayburn on a game show.

4. Ham the Astrochimp

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Ham was the first chimpanzee in space. He was trained to do simple operations (such as pushing a button in reaction to a light) as part of the Mercury Project. Ham blasted off into space on January 31st, 1961 from Cape Canaveral aboard the MR2 capsule. His suborbital flight lasted less than 17 minutes, but he completed the tasks he was trained to do, proving that such tasks would be possible for a human in space. Alan Shepherd's historic flight aboard the Freedom 7 followed three months later. Ham retired to the National Zoo in Washington, and also lived at the North Carolina Zoo before he died in 1983.

5. Lancelot Link

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Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp was a Saturday morning children's series that ran on ABC from 1970 to 1972. It was a parody of spy shows such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the James Bond films. Chimpanzees played all the characters, with human voices overdubbed. Lancelot was a secret agent working for A.P.E. (Agency to Prevent Evil). He also headed a band called The Evolution Revolution, which enabled the show to include musical numbers. Some can be seen on YouTube.

6. Bear

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BJ and the Bear aired on NBC-TV from 1979 to 1981. The series starred Greg Evigan as BJ, a truck driver who traveled with his chimpanzee named Bear. The show has an online fan club, with episode guides, photos, and cast information.

7. Bubbles

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At the height of his career in 1985, Michael Jackson adopted a chimpanzee he named Bubbles. Bubbles had previously lived at a research facility in Texas. The chimp accompanied Jackson to press conferences, recording sessions, and even award shows. Jackson and the chimp parted ways when Bubbles' behavior became hard to handle. Bubbles was later found living on an animal ranch in Slymar, California, where he is reported to be doing fine.

8. Pankun

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The most popular chimpanzee active in the media today is Pankun, a regular on two TV shows in Japan, Tensai! Shimura Doubutsu-en (Genius! Shimura Zoo) on NTV and Doubutsu Kisou Tengai! (Unbelievable Animals) on TBS. He is often seen doing very human things, such as riding a train or fishing with his dog, James.

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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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May 23, 2017
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