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The Quick 10: 10 Celebs Who Worked at Disney

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We're just a few days from our annual Halloween pilgrimage to Disneyworld and I'm getting a little antsy. I'm not sure if writing about Disney is helping time go by more quickly or grinding it to a halt, but either way, this was a fun topic to research. These days we think of "celebrities who started at Disney" as those mini-starlets on the Disney Channel: Miley, Selena, Demi and all of their protégés just waiting in the wings. But these celebrities were actually out there in the trenches, working in parades and telling corny jokes.

martin1. Steve Martin started his career as a magician at the Main Street Magic Shop at Disneyland. After spending a lot of time at the shop during his youth, he took a job there and mastered magic, juggling, banjo-playing and creating balloon animals. Steve showed that he's still got what it takes "“ he showed off a couple of his old sleight-of-hand tricks for an anniversary video that played in the park.
2. Teri Garr. Martin's co-star Teri Garr also spent some time working at the Happiest Place on Earth. I see her as Cinderella, myself, or perhaps Alice in Wonderland, but Teri was actually a non-character parade dancer.

3. John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. John actually worked with Steve Martin at the magic shop and is the one who taught him how to play the banjo. They went to high school together and remained friends even after they both got famous "“ it's the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who backed Martin on "King Tut."

4. Michelle Pfeiffer. I guess Teri Garr couldn't have been Alice, because Michelle Pfeiffer had already claimed the position. Michelle was Alice in the Main Street Electrical Parade in the mid-70s.

5. Alyson Reed is another Alice. You might not know the name, but if you have kids of a certain age I bet you know the face "“ despite being an accomplished Broadway actress, she may be best known today for her role as Ms. Darbus in High School Musical.

6. John Lasseter, as in the chief creative officer at PIXAR and Disney Animation Studios, started his relationship with The Mouse long before Toy Story: upon his graduation, he got a job at Disneyland as a Jungle Cruise Skipper and later moved up to animator.

7. Ron Ziegler, Richard Nixon's press secretary. OK, none of these have probably really stunned you up until this point "“ they're all creative types. But Ron Ziegler? Yup. He was also a skipper on the Jungle Cruise while attending USC.

bluefairy8. Joanna Kerns, best known as the mom from Growing Pains. Back in the day of the Main Street Electrical Parade, Joanna played the Blue Fairy (although that's not her pictured) from Pinocchio whose float kicked off the festivities. Picture by Deb Willis of AllEarsNet.
9. Richard Carpenter of The Carpenters. His story is kind of fun. He worked as one half of a banjo and piano duo, playing old ragtime pieces to fit in with the Main Street theme. At least, they were supposed to. They often took requests from park patrons to play more contemporary songs, like "Light My Fire." Their boss, Vic Guder, fired them after multiple offenses. Carpenter's response, the anti-establishment song "Mr. Guder," can be found on The Carpenters' LP Close to You.

10. Ronald Reagan, kind of. He was just an out-of-work actor the day Disneyland opened in 1955, and Disney hired him to host a live telecast of the park's opening. He may not have been a regular cast member, but Disney included him when they recognized all first-day cast members by giving them a lifetime membership to the exclusive Club 55 (not to be confused with Club 33, which anyone can eventually join if they have enough money).

And an honorable mention: Jen at Cake Wrecks was a skipper on the Jungle Cruise as well. The awesomely bad puns on Cake Wrecks totally make sense now!

Do you know any celebrities who sold Mickey ice cream bars or toiled all day under a hot costume? If I've left anyone out, share in the comments! And if you're interested in Disney tweets, I'll probably be chronicling my week in 140 characters or less next week.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]