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6 Little-known Secrets of the Mickey Mouse Club

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The Mickey Mouse Club which launched the careers of Britney, Christina, Justin, et al, was actually the third incarnation of the program. The original group of Mouseketeers made their TV debut 53 years ago this week, when they appeared on an ABC special on July 17, 1955, as a "teaser" to promote Walt Disney's newest brainchild that officially launched three months later. Those original shows have been syndicated and re-aired many times since, and even though the black-and-white images of chipper, beaming Mouse-eared kids magically transport us to a more innocent and uncomplicated time, the truth is that behind the scenes it was still Show Business with a capital B, and the youngsters were forced to grow up in a hurry.

1. The Original Kids Weren't that Cute

By the time the 90s version of the MMC was being cast, the producers were actively seeking poster-perfect kids whose smile would light up a room and make every parent wish that their own children were so aesthetically appealing. But when the producers of the original MMC launched their quest to find children for the cast, Walt Disney specifically instructed them not to hire professional "Shirley Temple types." He wanted "regular" kids that the audience could identify with "“ and who didn't come with domineering stage mothers. That ideology looked good on paper, but with only a few months' lead time, the producers had to resort to scouting local professional schools for kids who could sing and/or dance. This process led to one of the show's first stumbling blocks: Disney wanted a "gender balanced" cast, but it turned out that far more girls enrolled in tap and ballet school than boys did. As a result, a number of highly qualified girls were left on the sidelines while they watched boys who could barely fumble their way through a musical number land a spot in the all-important Roll Call. In the battle of testosterone over talent, there was one clear winner.

2. The Original Contracts weren't exactly fair

The kids who made the final cut were required to sign contracts that were somewhat exploitive compared to those of other kid actors of that era.

The Mouseketeers were each hired for one year at a time, at a flat rate of $185 per week, with 13-week options written into the contract. Translation: You and your attending parent had better mind your Ps and Qs, as you could be dropped at any time. (More than one Mouse was fired due to the behind-the-scenes badgering of an aggressive studio guardian.) In addition, the Mice were contractually bound to perform at any venue at the behest of the studio for no additional compensation. This included concerts at Disneyland, promotional photo shoots, visits to children's hospitals, and recording sessions for Mouseketeer-related albums, all of which were scheduled on the kids' "days off." To complain meant risking not getting your option picked up, as well as getting blacklisted as a "troublesome" child actor.

3. Walt Disney stopped Annette Funicello from changing her name

Picture 26.pngAnnette Funicello was one of the last Mice hired, and the only one specifically chosen by Walt Disney himself. Annette had been a very shy child, so her mother enrolled her in various dance and modeling classes to help bring her out of her shell. Uncle Walt spotted her in a school production of Swan Lake and invited her to audition for the MMC. After she'd been hired, young Annette approached Mr. Disney and timidly said that she'd like to change her last name to something less ethnic (a common practice for actors at the time). Walt told her to keep her name; he predicted that once the audience heard it, they'd never forget it. Of course, he was right and Annette quickly became America's favorite Mouseketeer. Why? You tell me. I know what the first two items will be on the list of any male readers, but note that Doreen's nameplate was thrust even further forward than Annette's and she never achieved the same level of fame. So what was it about Annette? Since I always thought Cheryl was the prettiest Mouseketeer, I'd love to hear from Annette fans in order to better understand her appeal.

4. The Kids who Got Cut Fast

Picture 32.pngSome of the original Mouseketeers that were hired never made it past the promotional photo stage. Dallas Johann was fired after only two weeks because he cried whenever the cameras were focused on him. Paul Peterson lasted three weeks and then was dismissed when he punched a casting director in the stomach. (He later went on to star on The Donna Reed Show and later founded A Minor Consideration, an organization dedicated to upholding the rights and well-being of child actors.) Mickey Rooney, Jr., and his brother Timmy (who were probably hired more on the basis of their parentage than their talent) were canned after wreaking havoc in the studio's paint department. Nancy Abbate was one of the best dancers in the cast, but was let go early in the first season due to "parental misbehavior."

5. A word about the Mouse-kadults

Picture 110.pngUnleashing 24 kids at a time on a soundstage was a daunting prospect, so adult "wranglers" were added to the cast in an effort to keep order. Jimmie Dodd was the de facto leader of the Mice, and also the composer of the familiar "Mickey Mouse Club March." In fact, he'd originally been hired by the Disney studio for his ability to quickly dash off a tune about the most mundane topic (he was able to compose "The Pencil Song" upon request for his audition). Roy Williams had worked for Disney as an animator, but his adept ability to produce caricatures on the basis of offhand remark made him a "story man" "“ he was assigned to sit in on creative meetings and develop story boards on the fly. One day while the MMC was still in pre-production, Walt Disney said to Williams, "You're big and goofy-looking, you should big the Big Mooseketeer." Rather than being offended, Williams (who'd always remained loyal to Disney for giving him his first job) went to wardrobe and got fitted for his ears. Alvy Moore was the third adult hired; the producers planned for him to be the "Roving Mouseketeer," acting as the host for location pieces. However, it was eventually decided to use him as a voiceover talent only for those segments. Moore eventually gained fame as the hapless county agent Hank Kimball on Green Acres. Well, not exactly fame, but more like recognition. Maybe not recognition, exactly"¦

6. Where they Marched Forth

None of the original Mice ever achieved the level of fame of Britney or Christina, but some of them did work in the business after the MMC ended, and some are memorable simply for the hand Life dealt them. Annette Funicello, of course, went on to star in a series of Beach Party films and then was the spokeswoman for Skippy Peanut Butter. Bobby Burgess worked as a dancer and choreographer on the Lawrence Welk Show for many years. Sharon Baird was the person inside the Charlie the Owl costume on the long-running kids' series The New Zoo Revue. Tommy Cole became a professional makeup artist and won an Emmy Award for his work in 1979. Cubby O'Brien is a talented drummer who has worked with the Carpenters, the Carol Burnett Show and many Broadway productions. And Cheryl Holdridge made some TV appearances before marrying Lance Reventlow, the only son of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. When he died in a plane crash in 1972, he left her a very wealthy widow.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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