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Still Following the Yellow Brick Road (After 70 Years)

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It was 70 years ago today that The Wizard of Oz premiered at The Strand Theatre in the little lakeside town of Oconomowoc, Wis. The film, based on the hugely popular children's series by L. Frank Baum, wasn't an overnight success and it wasn't even the most popular film that year "“ but now, where would Kansas be without Dorothy?

In tribute to the film that gave us "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Judy Garland, Toto (whose furry paw we should also shake for "Roseanna" and "Africa," among other awesome songs), "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," here's just a fraction of Oz trivia:

The Books

Lyman Frank Baum, a failed businessman and actor, wrote the first of the Oz books in 1900, becoming an almost immediate success. The first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, concerned Dorothy Gale, a young girl living with her Aunt and Uncle in the flat plains of Kansas, who one day is transported by means of her one-room farmhouse and a cyclone to the wondrous Land of Oz. There, she gets into an awful lot of adventures "“ some decidedly darker than the somewhat treacly film covers "“ in her quest to get home to Kansas.

Dorothy later returns to Oz, although the world also went on without her: Baum wrote 14 books in the Oz series, and one book of short stories set in the Oz-verse. Long after the books were published, people began to discuss the deeper political meanings behind the works "“ and it wasn't all just philosophical stoner fodder. Baum, whose mother-in-law was a staunch and formidable suffragette and was himself a supporter of women's rights, used some of his writing to criticize unequal gender roles.

Others saw a deep vein of satire and morality coursing through the books: Dorothy is the everyman, the Munchkins the populace, even the Tin Woodman as the "dehumanized industrial worker." And one scholar, writing in 1964, claimed that the Oz books were parables on Populism and the false movement from a gold standard (Yellow Brick Road) to unreliable cash (Emerald City), via the magic silver slippers "“ put your hopes in silver, the books seem to say, a message echoed by political thinkers of the time.

Whatever the interpretation, the books remained popular for generations after their initial publication and the stage adaptations within the first years of their printing.

The Movies

scarecrow-ozThe 1939 film wasn't the first screen production of L. Frank Baum's books, by any means. Between 1910 and 1925, no less than four silent films of varying length, quality, and fidelity to the books were produced "“ one, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz in 1914, was written and directed by Baum himself. It was also not the first screen depiction to show Kansas in black and white and Oz in color "“ that honor goes to a 1933 cartoon that also featured songs and music. (Incidentally, all of these are available on a 2005 three-disc collectors edition of The Wizard of Oz).

No, The Wizard of Oz "“ the one with Judy Garland, the songs, the Technicolor, the Munchkins and the flying monkeys, the one that everyone remembers and is practically a national treasure "“ wasn't the first. But it was the best.

In 1933, MGM studio head Samuel Goldwyn announced his plans to make a Technicolor, musical version of the movie, and MGM bought the rights to the books in 1937. From there, however, it was rough going: Because it would be one of MGM's most expensive films to make to date, it had to be good and everyone was under tremendous pressure to make it work.

Herman Mankiewicz, a former newspaper man who would later pen Citizen Kane, knocked out the first script in four days, but it was laden with a too-cutesy, too made-up Dorothy and laborious subplots. Poet Ogden Nash did a rewrite of the screenplay; it too was canned. George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story) was set to direct, but his ego appeared to have gotten in the way and he lasted only three days. Richard Thorpe signed on to direct, and was fired after two weeks. Goldwyn had hoped to snag Irving Berlin to do the lyrics and music, but they ended up "“ happily "“ with relative unknown Yip Harburg instead (he'd penned the Depression-era stalwart, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"). And ultimately, it was Noel Langely, a 26-year-old South African scriptwriter who finished off most of the final script and who faded back into obscurity soon after, while director Vic Fleming and then King Vidor were brought on to shepherd the film to completion.

Filming The Wizard of Oz was no stroll down the Yellow Brick Road, either.

wicked-witchThe costumes were killers: Margaret Hamilton, who famously played the grotesque Wicked Witch of the West, was nearly killed when her make up caught fire, while her stand-in was hospitalized after being knocked from her broom during the skywriting scene. Judy Garland was forced to wear a painful corset to keep her chest Kansas flat. The Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow also weren't allowed to eat with the other actors in the cantina because their make-up was too frightening (no word on whether the Wicked Witch was welcome).

Even worse, Buddy Ebsen, who had been cast as the Tin Man and had even recorded his songs for the soundtrack, had an allergic reaction to the aluminum powder used in his make up and had to leave the set, to be replaced by Jack Haley (Ebsen himself had replaced Ray Bolger, who convinced MGM to let him play the Scarecrow instead). Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion, was saddled with 90-pounds of fur and hair to achieve the anthropomorphized lion effect. A few of the Winged Monkeys were hurt when the wires holding them up broke.

There were even rumors of Munchkin sex orgies at the hotel where the little people were staying, although surviving Munchkins claim those reports were way overblown. (Of course, they were only getting paid about $50 a week, plus room and board, so can you blame them?)

Munchkin orgies aside, the final product was a bit of a departure from the somewhat bleaker aspects of Baum's classic text: There, Uncle Henry and Aunty Em, for example, were unhappy people who didn't know what joy was "“ all the more reason for young Dorothy to want to escape to a far off magical land "“ and there was no evil Miss Gulch to snatch Toto away. The Tin Man had at one time been a real man, who had, after an accident with an enchanted axe, lost all of his limbs and ultimately his head and had them replaced with tin prosthetics. The same witch who enchanted the axe then called down a rainstorm, fixing the now rusted Tin Man to the spot. Even the Emerald City wasn't actually green "“ that was an effect achieved by the green tinted glasses that the Wizard forced the citizenry to wear bolted to their heads.

And, of course, the shoes in Baum's original were silver, not ruby "“ ruby just showed off the Technicolor better.

The film was, at first blush, only a moderate success "“ its massive budget threatened to swamp its actual take of around $3 million, although the initial reviews of the film were largely positive (The New York Times called it a "delightful piece of wonderworking"). It was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and ultimately took home Best Original Song and Best Music, and a special award for Judy Garland.

The Aftermath

ruby_slippersThe movie's real success story actually came a few years after its first theatrical release. As Judy Garland's star continued to rise and the film took on a more mythic aspect, people began to truly love it. It was reissued in 1949, then again in 1955, both times to record-breaking crowds, before becoming an annual television tradition "“ in its first network showing in 1956, the "event" attracted 45 million viewers.

The groundswell of national obsession with the film has cemented its place in history "“ and in a particularly affectionate fandom. Remember those red slippers? They pop up at auctions often, usually fetching high sums, along with other memorabilia. The Wicked Witch's hat sold for $33,000 in 1988, while Dorothy's dress, the one Garland wore in the film, sold for $267,000 in 2005.

The Adaptations

MJ-WizThe Wizard of Oz has been the inspiration for several more films and stage adaptations, though few have captured the magic of the 1939 film. Most notably, there was The Wiz, an "urbanized" version (meaning African American) of the story. The musical premiered in 1975 on Broadway and was a rousing success; the 1978 film version, set in Harlem and featuring Diana Ross as Dorothy Gale and a bizarrely made-up Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, however, was not.

Then there's Disney's Return to Oz, a 1985 sequel to the first film that took its inspiration from two other books in the Oz series, Ozma of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz. This one involved Dorothy suffering from what looks like undiagnosed PTSD from her experiences with Oz, Aunt Em deciding to chuck her in an insane asylum to get her some electro-shock therapy, and Dorothy eventually escaping to Oz, with her pet chicken, Billina. Creepy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn't do all that well at the box office.

In 2005, The Muppets redid Oz, with singer Ashanti playing Dorothy, Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard, Queen Latifah as Aunt Em, Quentin Tarantino as, bizarrely enough, himself, and the Muppets as the various other characters. All the witches were played by Miss Piggy and of course, Kermit the Scarecrow, Gonzo as the Tin Thing, and Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion. And Toto is not a dog, or a shrimp "“ he's a King Prawn.

And now the enormously popular musical Wicked, based on Gregory Maguire's novel of the same name, which looks at the Oz story from the perspective of the drowned witch.
While today is the day the film officially premiered in Wisconsin, Warner Bros. Isn't releasing its massive, 70th anniversary DVD set until September 29. In the meantime, the company has loosed a seven-story tall, emerald green hot air balloon across the country to advertise the new box set. (You can track its progress here.)

And be on the look out for other Oz-related celebrations "“ like in Wamego, Kan., population 4,312, where the Oz theme has been deployed in everything from the local wine shop, the Oz Winery, which sells Witch in a Ditch Red, to the local hair salon, Scissors of Ahhhhz. This year, in addition to celebrations at the Oz museum, they'll be hosting the street festival, Oztober.

Oh, and why did the film premiere in Oconomowoc, pronounced oh-CON-oh-moe-wok, not, as many people assumed, at Grauman's Chinese Theatre? One of the composers on the film, Herbert Stothart, owned a lakeside cottage there.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.