CLOSE
Original image

6 Odd Moments in Oscar History

Original image

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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES