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6 TV Stars with Billboard Hits

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It seems like no one is satisfied with their level of celebrity. TV stars want to work in film, film stars strive to make it big on Broadway, and me, I want to direct. This week I'm taking the high road and looking at the cross-over successes: those precious few TV stars whose recordings actually cracked the Billboard Top 40.

1. Miami Vice stacks the Deck

Miami Vice was all the rage in the early 1980s. It inspired men to wear unconstructed suit jackets over pastel T-shirts, it inspired a company to sell a razor that left a fine layer of stubble on a man's chin, and it inspired Epic Records to offer Don Johnson a record deal. Despite Johnson's very dicey vocal ability, the Miami Vice name carried enough cachet to entice Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, Ron Wood and Willie Nelson to contribute their considerable talents to his debut album. His single "Heartbeat" hit number five in 1986.

2. Eddie Murphy's Girl Likes to Party all the Time

In the dreadful early 1980s era of Saturday Night Live, a young comic named Eddie Murphy was the breakout star. He became famous for many recurring characters, including Velvet Jones, Mr. Robinson, and Buckwheat. His comedic genius was recognized by bigwig studio types, and as a result he co-starred in such big budget films as Trading Places and 48 Hours. But that wasn't quite enough to satisfy Murphy's all-conquering celebrity mojo; he hoped to be a singing star as well. He recorded an album produced by his superstar pal Rick James, and had some fleeting success. In 1985, the single "Party All the Time" (his only major hit) peaked at number two on the charts.

3. Travolta gets (Re-)discovered for the First Time

John Travolta owes his recording success to the young daughter of a Midland Records executive. She was watching an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter when Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino sang an impromptu and improvised chorus of "Barbara Ann." She told her dad about this cute guy on TV who could sing, and once dad did some research into Kotter's ratings and demographics, he hustled Travolta into the recording studio. His 1976 ballad "Let Her In" hit number 10 in 1976 and landed him guest shots on a number of talk shows as well as American Bandstand.

John Travolta - Let Her In - Music Video via

4. Another Cassidy hits it Big

If you were a warm-blooded teenage girl in the late 1970s (not me, of course"¦I, um, was a mere child at the time"¦), you arranged your weekend schedule so that you were planted in front of the TV at 7:00 Sunday night in order to watch The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. If it happened to be a Nancy Drew episode, you changed the channel and finished your homework. But when Shaun Cassidy was onscreen, the real world melted away and you were transported to some parallel universe by his huge blue eyes, carefully layered blond hair, winning smile and "aw, shucks" personality. Thanks to his pedigree "“ he was the half-brother of teen superstar David Cassidy "“ it was only a matter of time before Shaun would be handed a record deal. His very first single, a remake of the Crystals' "Da Do Ron Ron" went all the way to number one in July 1977. He wasn't exactly a "one hit wonder," either; he also landed in the top 10 with "That's Rock and Roll" and "Hey, Deanie."

5. The Soundtrack to Father's Day

Paul Petersen had just turned 13 when he landed the role of Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show. He was 20 by the time the show ended, and had managed to become something of a teen idol in the meantime. On one episode young Jeff hesitantly sang a sappy ballad to his father in front of his cool rock and roll friends. Colpix Records offered Petersen a recording contract (despite Petersen's own protests that his vocal range was limited). "My Dad" was released as a single soon after. It cracked the Top 20 in 1962, and since there are so few heartfelt songs about Pop from an appreciative son's point of view, it still gets radio airplay on many stations every year around Father's Day. Click here to get an earful.

6. A Detective Finds his Voice

David Soul's first love was singing. He'd tried his hand at a musical career in the early 1970s, billing himself as The Covered Man and appearing on talk fests like The Merv Griffin Show wearing a mask. When that gimmick failed to make him a superstar, he started auditioning for acting roles. His big break came in 1975 when he was cast as Det. Ken Hutchinson on the police action series Starsky and Hutch. Once the show was a hit and Soul's face was regularly plastered in teen magazines, he was able to sing without hiding his face. "Don't Give Up on Us" hit number one in April 1977.

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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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Stephen Missal
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]