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My Favorite Monsters: Gacy

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Over the past few weeks, I've dissected three major horror-movie types: the vampire, the zombie and the Thing Without a Name. This week I thought I'd take a little detour and examine a real monster using the same rubric as I've been developing here. (Not that he's really my "favorite," mind you; having a "favorite" serial killer is pretty gross.) For some reason I've found myself thinking a bit about John Wayne Gacy -- due largely to the fact, I think, that I've had Sufjan Stevens' Come on Feel the Illinoise stuck on repeat in my car. The haunting track "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." is an apt introduction to today's topic, via an unauthorized (an unexpectedly affecting) music video for it:

For those of you unfamiliar with the basic facts of his case, Gacy summed it up himself once when he told a friend, in a kind of half-confession: ""I do a lot of rotten, horrible things, but I do a lot of good things too." Those "good things" included dressed up like a clown ("Pogo") to entertain kids in hospitals, throwing huge block parties in his Chicago neighborhood, chairing a local Street Lighting District and serving on his local Democratic Committee. Before moving to Chicago, he managed a KFC in Waterloo Iowa. Here's an incredible -- mundane, but creepy -- interview conducted with Gacy at his restaurant:

But if the "good things" were many, the "rotten, horrible things" were far more numerous: between 1976-1978 he raped and murdered 33 young men and buried them in a crawl space beneath his house, making him at the time of his 1979 arrest one of the most prolific American serial killers to date.

So what kind of monster does this make him?

The vampire
In classical terms, the vampire is a perfect gentleman whose fatal flaw is a horrible addiction -- to blood. That unfortunate trait makes the vampire an archetypal serial killer, forced to plot his killings, execute them under cover of night and always come back for more. So too Gacy, who seemed to his neighbors like such a model citizen, but was actually a ghoul in disguise, unable to curb unspeakable urges.

The Thing Without a Name
The most easily-recognizable Thing Without a Name is probably Pennywise the Clown from Stephen King's It, who, let's face it, is modeled after Gacy. It is a shape-shifting entity who appears as a clown to children and young boys in order to lure and kill them; Gacy in effect shifted shapes every time he peeled off his clown mask. In Silence of the Lambs, there's a scene where someone asks Clarice about Hannibal Lecter: "What is he, a vampire or something?" She responds: "They don't have a name for what he is." So too with Gacy: all you can do is list his symptoms and his crimes; there's no one word for what he was.
clowns.jpgAbove left: Gacy as "Pogo." Right: Tim Curry as "Pennywise."

The Werewolf
Another way of talking about his "shape-shifting" is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story -- to many, Gacy was the ever-pleasant Dr. Jekyll; to others, especially those he picked up hitchhiking, he was the horrible Mr. Hyde. The classic werewolf trope.

Perhaps this is why Gacy, of all serial killers, has so pervaded pop culture -- besides the songs, books and films made about him, there are also the paintings he created himself while in prison. Collected by some for their novelty value (and purchased by others just to destroy them), filmmaker John Waters owns one, which he says hangs in his guest bedroom "so people don't stay too long." Despite Gacy's crudeness, their creepiness is undeniable:

"Handprint and Clowns"


"Clown and Skull"

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]