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The Quick 10: 10 Things at the Warner Brothers Museum

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One of the surprising highlight of my trip last week was a tour of the Warner Brothers backlots. I've done studio tours before and I've never been all that impressed. But this one was pretty cool, if not just for the access to the Warner Brothers Museum at the end of the tour. You couldn't take pictures, so I don't have any personal shots to show, but rest assured that it was amazing. Most of the costumes and props weren't enclosed in glass, so you could get quite up close and personal (without touching anything, mind you). Here are a few of the things we got to see.

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1. Costumes from The Dark Knight. These were the first group of costumes you see when you walk in the door and I think I spent at least three of my allotted 15 minutes staring at how detailed and intricate the Joker costume was, right down to the socks. It was amazing. Batman's costume was there as well, and so was the Joker's nurse costume, several of the henchmen clown masks from the heist scene at the very beginning and a mini replica of the Tumbler.
2. The actual Maltese Falcon from The Maltese Falcon. I believe this one was enclosed, lest anyone be tempted to make off with it, and why shouldn't they want to? It's one of the most valuable movie props in the world. There were several copies of the statue used in the film, but this one is the one Humphrey Bogart dropped and dented - you can see that the tailfeathers are marred (so I'm told... I didn't know to look for this at the time). One of the other copies was sold to Harry Winston, Inc. for nearly $400,000 in 1994 - at the time, it was the highest price ever paid for a movie prop.

lisa marie3. Tim Burton mania. This is where I got into trouble. I knew the whole second floor was Harry Potter stuff, and I love Harry Potter, but coming upon props and costumes from Sweeney Todd, Mars Attacks!, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride was just way too exciting for me. I don't believe they had Sweeney Todd's costume, but they did have Mrs. Lovett's main costume. I happened to be Mrs. Lovett for Halloween last year, so I was pretty pleased to see how close my homemade costume came to the real thing (although I'm willing to bet that Helena Bonham Carter's dress wasn't held together with hot glue in several places). They also had one of the razors, a blood-splattered note to Judge Turpin, and Johanna's dress. Other Burton memorabilia included some of the models from The Corpse Bride, the skintight red swirls dress worn by Lisa Marie in Mars Attacks!, the Veruca Salt and Augustus Gloop costumes from Charlie, and plenty of other Charlie delights "“ had you ever noticed that Willy Wonka's cane was filled with sprinkles? Neither had I. Awesome. I would probably still be there looking if they hadn't given us a time limit.

hat4. The Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. The real one! And they let you try it on, sort of. They put it on your head and it determines what house you should be in. I'm not sure if there's a switch or a button that lets the person who puts it on your head determine which house you should be in, or if it's just motion-activated and completely random. I ended up being Gryffindor, which I suppose I should be happy about, but I kind of wanted to be Slytherin. Is that wrong? My friend Courtney got Slytherin"¦ maybe we could trade. The girl in front of us got Hufflepuff and was visibly disappointed.

5. Oscars and Oscar envelopes for some of Warner's films, including The Life of Emile Zola, Casablanca, My Fair Lady and The Jazz Singer. The latter didn't actually win Best Picture, but Warner Brothers was given an Oscar for creating the first "talkie." I thought the Oscar envelopes "“ the ones the presenters rip open to announce the category winners "“ were pretty interesting. I guess I had romanticized it in my head to be some sort of an engraved, ornate card in the envelope with very elaborate scrolling script. But no "“ it's a plain piece of cardstock with the winner written at the very top of the card (makes sense, then the presenter doesn't have to fumble with pulling the whole thing out of the envelope) in all capital, Courier-like font.

james dean6. James Dean's costume from Giant. Incidentally, our tour guide told us a little story about James Dean. If you've ever been to the WB lot, you probably noticed that there are bicycles everywhere "“ that's how a lot of people get around on the lot once they have gotten in and parked their cars for the day. Supposedly the reason this tradition started is all because of James Dean and his rebellious ways. James liked to ride his motorcycle around the lot when he wasn't filming, and when he noticed that the red lights outside the studios were illuminated, he would pull right up to the door and rev his engine. The red lights meant they were filming and because the stages aren't soundproof, James often ruined the take going on inside. He was just being mischievous, but the directors and producers weren't exactly charmed by it. They complained to Jack Warner, who went to Dean and said if he brought his motorcycle on the back lots one more time he would never act in another Warner Brothers picture. And then he bought James Dean a bicycle, which is how the whole thing caught on. Whether that's totally true or not is probably up for debate. James Dean's Triumph 500 motorcycle was also supposedly at the museum, but I didn't actually see it myself so I can't verify that it's still there. I know they switch out props and costumes on a fairly regular basis, so it may not have been there when we were there.

piano7. The piano from Casablanca and Humphrey Bogart's suit. Another classic prop I missed because I was too busy drooling over the Joker and Mrs. Lovett. How I missed an entire piano, I don't know. Clearly I need to go back and take this tour again "“ taking the tour is the only way to get access to the Warner Brothers Museum, unfortunately.
8. Aragog from Harry Potter. Big, giant, creepy spider "“ yup, that's the one. We think the model in the museum was from when Aragog was a baby and Hagrid was raising him, because it wasn't that big. But he was still about twice as tall as me and scary enough that I didn't want to get too close to it. They also had Hagrid's motorcycle, but it is apparently used in the sixth movie and is out for promotions right now, which goes to show you that they can pull stuff from the museum and put it back into use if they need to.

9. The costumes from 300. And they were quite small. If you think Gerard Butler was digitally touched up to look as good as he looked as a Spartan, I think you're wrong "“ to even fit into those costumes the actors surely had to have been seriously in shape.

central perk10. OK, this wasn't actually in the museum, it was part of the tour. But I thought it was pretty cool nonetheless "“ the whole Central Perk set from Friends. I'm not a huge Friends fan "“ it's fine, but I can really take it or leave it. Still, it was pretty cool to sit on the iconic couch. If the set looks a little different, that's because it's not actually set up the way it was on the show "“ they had to cram it all into a tiny room for storage purposes, so it's organized a bit differently.

I am kicking myself for not taking notes on everything I saw "“ it was totally impossible to see everything in just 15 minutes. And kudos to Warner Brothers for making the stuff fairly accessible "“ they could easily have it all stored away in the dark somewhere for preservation purposes, but instead they keep it available to the public. Has anyone else ever taken this tour? What did you see that I didn't? I would love to know.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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