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We Love Wilford: the Best of Brimley

Wilford Brimley seems to occupy a unique place in the hallowed halls of American pop culture. When I was a kid in the 80s, he was the everygrandpa on Our House, and curmudgeonly variations on that theme have comprised much of his career. But I wondered: where'd this guy come from, and why are young folk on the internets so all-fired excited about him again? Join me for a moment, if you will, for a brief Brimography.

We've had a few features here on the website about famous people who had weird jobs before they came to prominence. By this rubric, Wilford Brimley is a superstar: one of his early jobs was working as Howard Hughes' bodyguard. As a young(ish) man he worked as a ranch hand, a cattle wrangler, a blacksmith, and at the urging of his friend Robert Duvall, he began to use these talents in the service of Western-themed movies and TV shows; he shoed horses for film and TV, eventually getting background acting work as a riding extra and a stunt man in Westerns. This led to some minor acting roles on the TV show The Oregon Trail, and then to a breakout role in 1979's The China Syndrome.

Here he is acting his pants off opposite Paul Newman as a Department of Justice official in 1981's Absence of Malice.

He played Dr. Blair in John Carpenter's wonderful 1982 remake of The Thing:

The following year, he appeared in the academy award-winning film Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall, who insisted Brimley be cast so that Duvall, who was clashing with director Bruce Beresford, "could have someone there on his side." Brimley and Beresford clashed too, with Brimley reportedly responding to a direction he didn't like by saying: "Now look, let me tell you something, I'm Harry. Harry's not over there, Harry's not over here. Until you fire me or get another actor, I'm Harry, and whatever I do is fine 'cause I'm Harry." Balls of steel, that one.

A lot of people will remember Brimley from his role as the (curmudgeonly) coach in The Natural. Here's the great scene where Brimley finally gives Redford an at-bat, gamely telling Redford to "knock the cover off the ball." Which Redford does, quite literally.

His role as the evil company lawyer in The Firm showed that Brimley had range, and could play both good-at-heart curmudgeonly or, in this case, bad-to-the-bone curmudgeonly. Here he is blackmailing a very keyed up young associate played by Tom Cruise.

He also appeared in the Cocoon movies, where he, Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Jack Gilford all tried to out-curmudgeon one another, and has had roles ever since -- he even has something coming out this year, a film called The Path of the Wind. Last year, he gave a celebrity endorsement to John McCain, which Stephen Colbert made fun of:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Wilford Brimley Calls - Donation
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But lately, Brimley's been more famous for the commercials he's done over the years than for his many film roles. He was, of course, the spokesperson for Quaker Oatmeal throughout the 80s and 90s:

But the thing people have latched onto are his spots for Liberty Medical, a company that makes diabetes testing supplies. Brimley himself has struggled with diabetes since a diagnosis in 1979, and has made diabetes advocacy and awareness one of his missions in life. However, his unorthodox pronunciation of diabetes ("dia-BEE-tus") has become a target for endless ridicule on the internet. Here's one of the original Liberty Medical spots:

This spot and a few others like it have become viral memes, with YouTubers from all corners of the internet re-editing and re-mixing them -- mostly as dance numbers -- and getting millions upon millions of views. There's nothing funny about diabetes, but it seems that people have decided there's something very funny about Wilford Brimley. Here's the re-edit that started it all:

This mashup of a Liberty Medical spot and Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" equals "Rock Me Diabetes."

Another dance mix.

It's gotten so popular that Brimley's spots were even parodied on Family Guy:

What a way to wind up a long career, eh?

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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
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!

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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:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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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