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6 Odd Moments in Oscar History

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1. You Light Up My Mxpltk

In 1976, Best Actress winner Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) signed her acceptance speech to her Deaf parents. The Academy decided that her presentation was "cute," so during the 1977 ceremony, Debby Boone was scheduled to perform her Oscar-nominated song "You Light Up My Life" accompanied onstage by 11 young girls from the John Tracy Clinic for the Deaf who signed the lyrics as she sang. Eagle-eyed viewers, however, noted that each girl seemed to be signing a different song. It was later revealed that at the last minute a group of (non-Deaf) students from the nearby Torrence Elementary School had been recruited instead, and they had been signing gibberish.

2. Whoops, There It Is! (Where?)

During Oscar's 20th anniversary broadcast in 1947, future president Ronald Reagan was onstage narrating a montage of silent film clips that were projected behind him. As he earnestly intoned, "This picture embodies... the inspiration of our future," the audience burst into laughter. Reagan was unaware that, due to a technical glitch, the film was being shown upside down, backwards, and on the ceiling.

3. An Offer He Could Refuse

The 1973 Academy Awards will always be remembered for the controversy Marlon Brando caused when he refused his Best Actor award for The Godfather. He sent in his place a young Native American activist named Sacheen Littlefeather, who read a prepared speech about Hollywood's poor representation of the American Indian. It was later reported that Littlefeather was actually Maria Cruz, an actress of Mexican descent (she explains her heritage here).

4. Sour Grapes, Miss Mellie?

Hattie McDaniel
When Hattie McDaniel's name was announced as the Best Supporting Actress winner for the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind, co-star Olivia de Havilland (who'd been nominated for the same award) fled to the ladies room in tears. Irene Selznick, the wife of the film's producer, followed her and gave her a stern lecture on sportsmanship. A contrite Olivia emerged shortly afterward and graciously congratulated McDaniel, who'd already been slapped in the face (along with the other African-Americans who appeared in the film) by being left out of the film's world premiere at Loews Theatre in Atlanta.

5. I Coulda Been (and Was) a Contender!

Seventy-eight-year-old Sir Laurence Olivier received a standing ovation when he stepped up to the podium in 1984 to announce the Best Picture award. Unfortunately, he was so overcome with emotion that he forgot to list the nominees and instead simply opened the envelope and announced: "Amadeus!"

6. Don't Look, Ethel!

streaking.jpg"Streaking" "“ running in public places buck naked "“ was all the rage in the early 1970s. So it wasn't a complete surprise when 33 year-old Robert Opal dashed across the stage in the altogether during the 1974 Oscars. Presenter David Niven calmly made a quip about the gentleman displaying his "shortcomings," and Henry Mancini launched the orchestra into a chorus of "Sunny Side Up." Instead of being arrested, Opal was ushered into the press room for an interview. All things considered, the consensus was that the whole bit had been scripted in advance. As for Robert Opal, he did the talk show circuit for a while, then opened a sex paraphernalia shop in San Francisco, where he was tragically murdered during a robbery in 1979.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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