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Native or Not? The True Stories behind 5 "American Indian" Actors

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Over the years, plenty of Hollywood stars have fudged their resumes and claimed to be American Indians. Today, Kara Kovalchik is shaking the roots of those family trees to see just how authentic those claims really are.

1. Is Cher short for Cherokee?

Prior to 1973, Cher's biography always listed her father (John Sarkisian) as being of Armenian heritage, while her mother, Georgia Holt, was of Irish and German extraction. But when Cher's single "Half Breed" started climbing the Billboard charts (it would eventually hit number one), suddenly she remembered that she was 1/16th Cherokee on her mother's side. That biographical revision probably helped stem protests from the Native community when Cher performed her hit in a full feathered headdress on an episode of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. (Watching this clip now, Cher's costume seems pretty tame, but back in 1973 I clearly remember my dad's and brothers' tongues rolling out of their mouths like unfolding red carpets when she rode out on that horse.)

2. The Truth about Tonto

Picture 121.pngJay Silverheels, the actor that will best be remembered as the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto, was born Harold Jay Smith on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Despite his rather generic birth name, Smith was a full-blooded Mohawk. A talented athlete, Smith excelled at boxing and lacrosse. In fact, he was playing in a lacrosse tournament when actor/comedian Joe E. Brown spotted him. Brown thought the handsome young Smith might have a future in movies. As it turned out, Silverheels (the name Smith legally changed to in 1971) made his fortune in television where, besides his long-running gig with Clayton Moore, he also appeared in several lucrative commercials. Silverheels once joked to Johnny Carson that he'd married an Italian to "get back at Christopher Columbus."

3. The Boy who Cried Pollution

If you children of the '80s and '90s have ever wondered what all this "give a hoot, don't pollute" hoo-rah was about, you have Iron Eyes Cody to thank. From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, litter was a major cause of roadside, park and beach pollution in America. Discarded beer and soda cans, as well as paper bags with left-over fast food debris, were a blight on the American landscape. Thanks to a tearful Indian, however, all of that slowly changed. The Iron Eyes Cody public service announcement used Cody's careworn face to reflect the disappointment of the people who'd founded this land. Not long after, various laws were put into place that significantly reduced roadside litter. Here's the kicker though: Even though the pollution problem was very real at the time, the Native American in the commercial was not; Iron Eyes Cody was actually Espera de Corti, the son of Sicilian immigrants.

4. Emergency! Ethics

Picture 131.pngThe dark-haired paramedic of Emergency! fame doesn't talk too much about his Native American heritage. Mantooth's father was a full-blooded Seminole, and his mother was of German extraction. Randy once told an interviewer, "my mother was German, but no one seems to think that that's remarkable. They always jump on the "˜Indian thing.'" Likewise, Mantooth routinely refuses to play Native American roles, saying he doesn't want to take the part away from a full-blooded actor who deserves it more. What he is proud of, however, is the impact Emergency! had on viewers, and its lasting popularity. He is closely involved with "Project 51," a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting public awareness of emergency medical services in North America.

5. Indian Wrestling

Picture 141.pngChief Jay Strongbow was a well-known fixture in the professional wrestling arena for over 30 years. Standing a little over six feet tall and weighing 260 lbs., his dreaded Tomahawk Chop was a move to be feared, as was his Indian Deathlock.  When the Chief started his trademark War Dance, fans knew the end of the match was near "“ no one could stop Strongbow once he was in the midst of his "ancient tribal dance." However, like much of professional wrestling, the Chief's character was nothing more than a façade. Just like Iron Eyes Cody, Strongbow was actually an Italian-American named Joe Scarpa who'd started out wrestling under his own name with limited success. It was only was he donned his Native American shtick that his career took off.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]