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5 Reasons 1980 Wasn't the Best Year for Movie Musicals

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While movie musicals had their heyday in the 1940s through the 60s, by the 70s they were beginning to wane, and by 1980, they weren't doing well at all. With the selection present at the time, however, it's no big shock that they didn't. Here are some of 1980's notoriously cheesy musicals which haven't gotten any better with age.

1. The Apple

Apple Soundtrack CoverIt's over the top. The best compliment you can give it is that it makes good use of sequins. And it's set in the far off future"¦of 1994. Adapted from an Israeli stage play, The Apple is a heavy-handed biblical allegory about temptation that seems to think disco has no chance of ever dying. Audiences at the Los Angeles premiere loved the movie so much they threw their soundtracks at the screen, causing extensive damage. The only other positive thing about the movie is that none of its stars seems to have escaped with their careers intact; however, Nigel Lythgoe, the film's choreographer, has gone on to produce American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Did I mention that the end of the movie consists of God taking the protagonists away in his magic sky Cadillac? It's not to be missed.

2. Can't Stop the Music

Can't Stop the Music Soundtrack CoverFilmed at the height of 1979's disco craze and produced by Allan Carr (coming off of the massive success of Grease), Can't Stop the Music had the unfortunate luck of being released after disco had already peaked and was starting to experience a backlash. Directed by Nancy Walker (best known as Ida on the TV show Rhoda) and starring The Village People in a pseudo-biography of their start, the film was actually award-winning. Don't worry, we're not talking Oscars here. 1980 was the year the Golden Raspberry Awards started. CSTM took home the first "Worst Picture" and "Worst Screenplay" awards given out by the group, and was nominated for 5 others.

3. Xanadu

Xanadu Soundtrack CoverThis one seems to have all the right pieces. Olivia Newton-John, fresh from her success in the film version of Grease? Check. Music from Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) during the high point of their career? Check. Gene Kelly? Check. So what happened? Well, much like the previous 2 entries on the list, Xanadu celebrated Disco at a time when no one else did. Add a completely unbelievable plot (muses"¦rollerskating"¦huh?) and you've got a turkey on your hands. Xanadu cost $20 million to make, and barely made it back. The movie has had some luck recently, though. A Broadway version (complete with roller-skates and tongue-in-cheek references to the original) continues to do well, recently receiving 4 Tony nominations/awards.

4. Popeye

Popeye Soundtrack CoverShame on you, Robert Altman. You can do better. We're looking at you too, Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. While the film made double its budget in the end, critics and word-of-mouth kept many filmgoers away from the theaters after opening weekend. Harry Nilsson's score was derided as unintelligible, and Altman's career suffered through most of the 1980s as a result of the movie's poor performance. Everyone eventually experienced a resurgence in their career's popularity (Altman with The Player, Duvall with The Shining, and Robin Williams with"¦being Robin Williams), but Popeye still stands as a blemish on their careers.

5. The Jazz Singer

Jazz Singer Soundtrack CoverNeil Diamond is a respected musician with a long career. The Jazz Singer is best known as being the first talking motion picture. But much like oil and water, these two don't mix well. Starring Diamond, Laurence Olivier (who stated he only did it for the money), and Lucie Arnaz, the vanity picture has an atrocious script, overly sappy songs, and horrible acting. The soundtrack was more successful than the movie, which was nominated for 5 Golden Raspberry awards and won 2 for "Worst Actor" (Neil Diamond) and "Worst Supporting Actor" (Laurence Olivier).

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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