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Creatively Speaking: Laraine Newman

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larainenewman.jpgLaraine Newman may be best known for her funtabulous roles on Saturday Night Live (Connie Conehead, the Valley Girl, etc.), but she's been plenty busy in recent years doing pantloads of voiceovers for every animated feature under the cartoon sun, as well as working on a memoir and writing for the exciting new food zine, One for the Table.

I've been contributing some personal essays to One for the Table, and was introduced to Laraine by the zine's founding editor, author and screenwriter Amy Ephron.

So click on through to find out all about the origins of the Coneheads, who Laraine's favorite cartoon character was when she was growing up, what her writing process is like, as well as some links to her own essays on One for the Table.

coneheads.jpgOn Saturday Night Live:

DI: What's your favorite character that you played on SNL?

LN: Well my favorite character that I brought from The Groundlings [Theater Company], was the Valley Girl. And my favorite character that I created at Saturday Night Live, which, I think, only pleased me and no one else, was Lena Wertmuller.

DI: What's the origin of the Coneheads?

LN: That came out of an improv that we did at Lorne's [Michaels] loft about an alien family. We assumed the roles: Jane [Curtain] was the mother, Danny [Akroyd] was the father, and I was the daughter. And then Tom Davis and Danny went off and created the Coneheads.

DI: Do you still watch SNL today?

LI: Now that there's TiVo, yeah! I have a season pass and I think the cast is better than it has ever been. I just love the show.

Oy012.jpgOn voiceover work in animation:

DI: Did you have a favorite cartoon character when you were a kid growing up?

LI: I love Olive Oyl on Popeye. But I forget the name of the woman who voiced her. She also did Betty Boop. Your readers are smart, surely someone will know and let us know in the comments.

DI: How did you get into voiceover work for cartoons?

LN: About the time I had my first child, I was trying to figure out something I could do where I didn't have to be on a set. For actors, the minimum day is 12 hours. I knew I could do dialects and a lot of things with my voice. So I got a voiceover agent and auditioned for two years before I got any work. Then I took a class with Charlie Adler, who directs a ton of cartoons and he was a great teacher. After that, I started to get a lot of work and haven't stopped working since then. It's perfect because you go in for two hours, laugh your ass off, act stupid and get paid. It's really fun creating characters right on the spot. So with my improv background, it's a perfect fit.

DI: Of all the characters that you've voiced, is there one that you're particularly proud of?

LI: Yes, there's a show called "As Told By Ginger" which is one of the only cartoons out there for tweens. I played the mother for about three years and it was just great. I'm also proud of my association with Metalocalypse. It's completely wrong and subversive and it gives me street cred.

DI: What advice would you give to someone looking to break into animation voice over?

LN: Well they should start out with the ability to do dialects, characters, and play different ages. If you have those three things, I'd recommend taking a class to learn how to act with your voice, which is an entirely different skill.

On the memoir:

DI: How long have you been working at your memoir?

LN: About five years. I have a first draft and about five attempts at a second draft. But I'm having trouble recalling some of the details about the middle years of SNL. And I get sidetracked by wonderful other projects, like One for the Table, where I'm writing short form essays. What will probably happen is that I'll cobble together these essays, which all have SNL stuff in them, and that will be better way to approach this -- less of a tyranny.

DI: What are some of the challenges of writing a memoir?

LN: When I was working on the second draft, I went through a really bad depression because I had to revisit some very unhappy moments in my life. In order to offer a more vivid tone I would inhabit those moments in order to represent them. And it's also easy to get bored with long-form writing. That is, and this is the French translation of boredom: I bore myself. It's hard for me to remain enthusiastic about telling my story at times.

DI: Is there a memoir or autobiography that you've read for inspiration?

LN: Sidney Poitier's. It was interesting in the sense that he gave his philosophy of life along the way.

DI: What's your writing process like?

LN: To tell the truth, I don't really have a process. Sometimes I write in the morning for 10 minutes, other times I write in the evening for an hour and a half. That's a really long time for me. My younger daughter is a cheerleader and her gym is in Pasadena. We have to be there from 3:00-9:00, so I take my laptop and get a lot of work done there.

oneforthetable-759537.jpgOn One For the Table:

DI: How did you get involved with One for the Table?

LN: My high school friend Amy Ephron—my roommate at the college of Saturday Night Live—asked if I would contribute and I said, "˜Would I?!' It's an incredibly unique idea to have a food magazine with pieces written by people who are not food writers, who are known for other things. It's a compelling approach. It's been really fun for me to read other people's stuff and fun for me to write.

DI: Why is it so rewarding for you?

LN: I'm trying to build something by writing for One for the Table. I'm trying to build a literary presence in the essay form and also I think this circuitous route will ultimately help me with the memoir.

DI: What's your hope for One for the Table in the future?

LN: I'd love for it to have the same presence as The Huffington Post. I think it's a wonderful form of expression. There's also an entertainment value built in because you'd never imagine someone like Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, Gangs of New York) writing about food. Or Arianna Huffington submitting a cookie recipe. That's the fun of it.

Check out some of Laraine's One for the Table essays:

Nixon vs. Kennedy

Kids Say The Darndest Things

The Joy of Cooking

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.