Shorts That Don't Suck: Early Pixar

If there's one company that knows how to make shorts that don't suck, it's Pixar. They also know how to make feature films that don't suck, as evidenced by their newest release WALL"¢E, which, forget the animation category, should be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar next year as far as I'm concerned. Stretching all the way back to 1995's Toy Story, the former Lucasfilm division has a proud history of great features, and an equally proud, if somewhat lesser known, history of great shorts going all the way back to 1984, many of which have helped Pixar earn its thirteen Academy Awards. Here they all are, arranged chronologically for your flossing and viewing pleasure.

Andre and Wally B - 1984

This was made at Lucasfilm, but animated by John Lasseter, who would become the head of Pixar. To look at the animation, it's incredible to think this was made in 1984 -- consider the monochrome bloops and bleeps your PC, if you were lucky enough to have one, made back then. The technology was quite restrictive, but Lasseter pushed the envelope by asking the Lucasfilm tech team for tear-drop shapes that could be animated (over and above the simple geometric shapes he was otherwise limited to). The results are impressive, if brief.

Luxo Jr. - 1986

This was Pixar's first short after becoming a company independent from Lucasfilm, and it received an Oscar nom for Best Animated Short -- not bad for their first try! Luxo the lamp has since become the company's unofficial mascot, and was inspired by one of John Lasseter's student films at CalArts, "Lady and the Lamp." According to Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, "'Luxo Jr.' sent shock waves through the entire industry "“ to all corners of computer and traditional animation. At that time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer. They did not realize that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist's kit but instead perceived it as a type of automation that might endanger their jobs. Luckily, this attitude changed dramatically in the early '80s with the use of personal computers in the home. The release of our 'Luxo Jr.,' ... reinforced this opinion turnaround within the professional community."

Red's Dream - 1987

Following the phenomenal success of "Luxo Jr.," "Red's Dream" was a bit of a downer, both because it's a really sad film, and because it didn't rack up the accolades that "Luxo" had. We still think it's still insanely impressive, however.

Tin Toy - 1988

"Tin Toy" represented several significant firsts for the still-fledgling animation company: their first attempt at a semi-realistic human character in a 3D computer-animated film (the baby), and their first film to not only be nominated for, but win, the Oscar for Best Animated Short. The Library of Congress' National Film Registry chose to preserve the film in 2003.

Knick-Knack - 1989

Pushing the animation envelope yet again, "Knick-Knack" premiered at the annual SIGGRAPH computer animation convention -- in 3-D. It was re-built and re-rendered for release with 2003's Finding Nemo, for which the female characters underwent some serious breast reduction, presumably to make the film more family-friendly. It didn't win an Oscar, but for what it's worth, Terry Gilliam has called it "one of the best animated short films of all time." So that's cool.

Lifted - 2006

To see just how far Pixar has come, check out their Oscar-nominated short "Lifted," which was released with Ratatouille. Directed by acclaimed sound mixer Gary Rydstrom, the similarity between the alien protagonist's baffling control console and the mixing boards used by Hollywood sound guys is no coincidence.

Previous installments of "Shorts That Don't Suck"
Volume I
Volume II
Volume III: Arty Edition
Volume IV: Music Videos

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”