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R.I.P. Farrah Fawcett

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Farrah Fawcett was one of those rare "golden children." She was blessed with beauty from birth, and by the time she hit adolescence she'd been told "you're so pretty" so often that she began to feel self-conscious about it. She was voted "Best Looking" in her high school graduating class, and was a sorority sweetheart at the University of Texas-Austin. Farrah eventually succumbed to all the gushing about her looks and decided to try her luck in Hollywood. Her subsequent career had many peaks and valleys, but we at mental_floss prefer to focus on the "up and coming" portion of her life. Back when she was still a fresh-faced ingénue and hadn't yet starred in The Burning Bed or her own VH1 reality series.

Game shows used to be a useful stepping stone to fame for aspiring actors.

It was a way to get "noticed" by agents and casting directors (Kirstie Alley, Mel Harris and Kathy Najimy all appeared as game show contestants before getting their SAG cards). Farrah appeared on a 1969 episode of The Dating Game. Note that when the aspiring gallery owner was introduced, Bachelor Number One asked, "What was her name, please?" A few years later, everyone would know.

Farrah was 23 years old and had only been in Hollywood for three years when she landed a small but memorable role on The Partridge Family. Danny and Mr. Kincaid hired her to help them snap a photo of Harry Morgan bending down (to prove his "whiplash" was phony), but even 10-year-old Danny was mesmerized by Ms. Fawcett's effervescent beauty. "It was like the camera had a mind of its own," he later explained.

Ultra-Brite toothpaste was famous for its ""¦but mother never told me" advertising campaign during the early 1970s. With her mile-wide smile, Farrah was an obvious choice to feature in one of their commercials.

Farrah had the beginnings of her trademark "˜do here, but she was still considered to be the "unknown" in this Noxema commercial. Joe Namath was the star of the spot; Fawcett was cast as the typical arm candy that fawned over Broadway Joe during that era.

1975"¦a year when gasoline was cheap, cars were big, and the leonine features of Farrah Fawcett perfectly complemented Chauncey the Mercury Cougar. Would you buy a used car from this woman?

Farrah had been battling it out in the Hollywood trenches for several years before she'd earned enough money to hire a publicist, an acting coach, and "“ in retrospect, perhaps most prescient - a personal hair stylist. Hugh York first gave Farrah the layered, feathered, highlighted style that became her trademark. After she gained fame on Charlie's Angels, "stylists to the stars" Allan Edwards and Jose Eber would both help to maintain her trademark locks.

fawcettThe Pro Arts Company of Ohio was run by two brothers who specialized in selling youth-oriented posters. They hit pay dirt in the early 1970s when their "Fonzie" poster sold a quarter of a million copies. In early 1976, one of Pro Arts' founders heard from a friend that many of his dorm-mates at college were buying women's magazines just for the Wella Balsam shampoo ads that featured a blonde beauty named Farrah Fawcett. Pro Arts tracked down Fawcett and arranged a photo shoot beside the pool at her Bel-Air, California, home. Photographer Bruce McBroom used an Indian blanket that doubled as a seat cover in his Chevy as a backdrop. Farrah chose a red one-piece bathing suit in lieu of a bikini in order to cover a scar on her stomach. In the ultimate example of serendipity, between the time Farrah posed for the poster and its release in late 1976, she had been hired as one of Charlie's Angels and the first few episodes had aired. The free publicity provided by the show sent poster sales into the stratosphere, and made Pro Arts a multi-million dollar company.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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