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The Quick 10: Disney's Haunted Mansion

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Those of you who read my blog already know that I am a rather obsessive Haunted Mansion/Disney fan. In fact, as you read this, there's a chance that I'm at the Haunted Mansion right now"¦ I'm actually on vacation all this week and prepared the Q10s ahead of time. The Disney part is in my genetics "“ my mom is a pretty rabid fan and I grew up with pretty much all of the Mickey I could handle. I'm sure she questions where she went wrong with why I prefer 999 Happy Haunts to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Anyway, I have lots of Haunted Mansion factoids buried in my brain, so I figured it's time to dig some of it up just in time for Halloween.

magic cart

1. Museum of the Weird. The original plans called for the Mansion to be a walk-through attraction and would include a section called The Museum of the Weird. Guests would wander through the spooky house and enjoy oddities such as this one: a magic cart that would roll to life all on its own at random intervals. The Museum was the pet project of Imagineer and Disney Legend Rolly Crump, but sadly, most of his ideas never made it to fruition because they wouldn't work if the ride wasn't a walk-through. He did reveal that the famous Haunted Mansion hidden faces wallpaper was based on one of his designs for the Museum, however. Photo: DoomBuggies.com

hatbox2. Hatbox Ghost. In California, there was an exceptionally creepy ghost in the attic for a very brief time period. He was an older gent holding a hatbox, and his head would periodically disappear from his neck and appear in the box he was holding instead. They had problems getting it to work consistently, though, and elected to remove him from the attic altogether. Photo: DoomBuggies.com

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3. Tombstones with a Purpose. While you're waiting in line for the big show at the Magic Kingdom, you can entertain yourself by reading the epitaphs on the tombstones. They're funny all on their own, but when you know that each one is tied to an Imagineer, they are even more interesting. X Atencio, who wrote the lyrics for "Grim Grinning Ghosts" (and had a hand in lots of other Disney awesomeness), also wrote the inscriptions, including his own.

There are quite a few stones, so I'll just give you a smattering of them. "Dear departed Brother Dave" is Dave Burkhart, who built the model of the Mansion; "Brother Claude" is Claude Coats, designer of the track layout; "Grandpa Marc" is Marc Davis, one of the main concept designers; "Dear sweet Leota" is Leota Toombs (seriously, Toombs), a Disney artist who was also the model for the head in the crystal ball.

4. Pepper's Ghost is an illusion used in magic tricks and theater. Basically, it's using plate glass and specific lighting to make objects appear to disappear and reappear, or morph into something else (it's more complicated than that, but you get the idea). The Haunted Mansion contains the world's largest case of the Pepper's Ghost technique "“ it's the entire ballroom scene. The reflections in the glass is what causes the appearance of ghosts in the room. If you're someone who likes to spot the inconsistencies in movies and the typos in my posts, you'll enjoy this: the Imagineers screwed up when designing the scene. They forgot to flip the ghosts to account for the reflection, so if you look at the dancing ghouls, you'll see that the ladies are actually leading the men instead of the other way around.

organ5. Recycling Organs. Not those type of organs "“ pipe organs. If you visit Disneyland in Anaheim, take a close look at the organ in the ballroom scene. It's the original prop from the 1954 Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It used to belong to Captain Nemo, but now it's entertaining ghosts who are permanently partying. It fit in so perfectly that an exact replica was made for the Mansion at Disneyworld and Tokyo Disneyland. This photo is from DoomBuggies as well - click the link to learn more about the organ and how it was altered to fit in with its new home.

6. Is the Haunted Mansion really Haunted? Maybe. Personally, I think the atmosphere probably just lends itself to freaking out cast members who are there late at night closing by themselves. Then again, I've never worked there and experienced these things, so it's not really for me to say. One such ghost story is "The Man with the Cane". He makes his home at the Orlando manse and several cast members have reported seeing him. It always happens late at night to the person working at the part of the ride where people are loaded. One second, the Doom Buggies are flowing through, empty, and the next second, there's a thin, old man with a cane sitting in a buggy, staring straight ahead. The cast member attempts to say hello or make some sort of conversation, but the man doesn't acknowledge him or her "“ he just continues his journey through the room and on into the Mansion. Understandably freaked out, the cast member calls his or her supervisor and they wait for the man to come out at the end of the ride "“ but he never comes. Some say it was the ghost of Yale Gracey, one of the main Imagineers who worked on the project (Master Gracey, the man of the house, is named after him). You can find more stories about Haunted Mansion haunts at The Shadowlands (a great place if you have a few hours to waste).

7. A Real Final Resting Place. People dump ashes in the Haunted Mansion all of the time, Which lends some real credence to those haunting stories. You can read about one such instance here. Ash dumping happens so often that Disneyland had to purchase a special HEPA vacuum that can pick up ashes, but also little tiny bone fragments that are often left behind after a cremation. If you ever hear a Haunted Mansion cast member calling for a "HEPA clean-up," maybe you want to check out another attraction for a while and come back when the crew has tidied up a little.

8. Grim Grinning Ghosts. It's an undeniably catchy song with some really vivid imagery invoked in the lyrics. There might be a reason for that "“ the phrase "Grim Grinning Ghosts" first showed up in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. A sampling:

"Hard favour'd tyrant, ugly, meager, lean,
hateful divorce of love," - thus chudes she Death -
"Grim-grinning ghost, Earth's worm, What dost thou
mean
to stifle beauty and to steal his breath,"

But X Atencio swears he didn't rip the phrase off from Shakespeare. I was at a Haunted Mansion event in Disneyland in February (told you I was a Haunted Mansion geek) and X was in attendance, along with Harriet Burns, Blaine Gibson and Bob Gurr. Someone asked him where the phrase came from, and he grinned and replied, "It came from X Atencio!" But that's a pretty distinctive phrase"¦ my guess is that he probably read it somewhere a long time ago and absorbed it into his brain without even realizing.

9. The Knight in Shining Armor. If you've been on the ride, you probably remember the knight standing all by his lonesome in the hallway. And if you're paranoid, like me, you probably thought, "That would make a great place for a person to hide"¦" and then nervously wonder if it was going to come chasing after you. Well, you wouldn't be too far off the mark. It's not done anymore, but when the Mansion was newer, the Knight really did house a cast member who would run after Doom Buggies. It really freaked people out, and the knight constantly had to stop the ride when he was punched or spit on. One cast member who played the knight for a summer recalls that one of his co-workers had his nose broken. He also tells the story of having to tell a girl to put her top back on because she was in the middle of a steamy make out session with her boyfriend.

staff10. The Servant's Quarters. Showing Disney's amazing attention to detail, even a part of the house that is rarely seen is themed to the hilt. There's a little corridor that connects the outside exit hallway to the Parlor inside "“ I believe it's also the handicapped entrance. But what could have easily been a hallway with some funeral parlor-eqsue wallpaper is actually the Servant's Quarters, marked with a small sign shaped like a bat. There are bells that go to each person's chambers, each labeled with a room that pays tribute to an Imagineer. Some are repeats, so I'll just explain the ones I didn't talk about in the tombstone section. Ambassador Xavier's Lounging Lodge, Madame Leota's Boudoir, Grandfather McKim's Resting Room (Sam McKim, sketch artist), Uncle Davis' Sleeping Salon, Master Gracey's Bedchamber, Colonel Coats' Breakfast Berth and Professor Wathel's Reposing Lounge (Wathel Rogers, who designed and programmed lots of the audio-animatronics in the Mansion).

And, if you're a Disney fan and a BoingBoing fan, here's a treat: Haunted Mansion fan, BoingBoing founder and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow recounts his first Haunted Mansion experience for DoomBuggies.com. Oh, you know who else is a Haunted Mansion fan? NPH (Neil Patrick Harris). He was at the event I was at in February, which makes me like him even more than I already did.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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