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11 Adorable Facts About Mickey Mouse

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Image credit: Peter Lee via Flickr // CC: CC BY-NC 2.0

Today is a special day for Disneyphiles everywhere: It's Mickey Mouse's birthday. At least, it's the day Mickey was officially born, since it's the anniversary of the 1928 release of his very first cartoon, Plane Crazy. (Disney celebrates Mickey on November 18, the anniversary of Steamboat Willie—more on that below.) To honor the little rodent (we say that with love), here are a few facts you may not have known about Mr. Mouse.

1. Plane Crazy was Mickey's first flick, but Steamboat Willie is what made him famous.

Plane Crazy didn't really connect with audiences the way Steamboat did—it was also silent. Steamboat Willie was one of the first cartoons to feature synchronized sound. Disney was inspired to try out the new technology after seeing The Jazz Singer.

2. If things had gone a little differently, the mascot of the Disney company would have been Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

 Image credit: HirotomoT via Flickr // CC: CC BY-SA 2.0

Oswald was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks for Universal. He was a pretty popular character, so when Disney and Universal had a spat, Universal seized control of the rabbit. Disney left shortly thereafter and ended up creating Mickey Mouse. You can see the resemblance in the figurine on display in the above photo. Universal later had the rabbit redesigned. In February 2006, Disney finally reacquired Oswald's rights. Oddly enough, this transaction involved sportscaster Al Michaels. Michaels wanted out of his ABC contract to join John Madden in the broadcast booth for NBC's Sunday Night Football. Since NBC wanted Michaels, Universal—which owns NBC—offered to return Oswald to Disney in exchange for the sportscaster.

3. Despite what Disney might tell you, Minnie and Mickey are actually married.

 Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // CC: CC BY 2.0

OK, the cartoon characters aren't married, but their real-life counterparts were. The people who voiced Minnie and Mickey were spouses. Wayne Allwine was the third person to give Mickey a voice and held the role from 1977 until his death in 2009. Allwine married Russi Taylor, the current voice of Minnie Mouse, in 1991. Taylor has been Minnie's voice since 1986 (and was also the voice of Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Webby, for fellow DuckTales fans).

4. Mickey hasn't always been so politically correct.

Some earlier cartoons have been edited or completely shelved because of content that wouldn't exactly go over with the public these days. One is the previously mentioned Steamboat Willie—there's a scene that involves what would be considered animal cruelty today when Mickey swings a cat around by its tail and uses a goose as bagpipes. Then there's Mickey's Mellerdrammer, a 1933 short that has Mickey and Co. doing Uncle Tom's Cabin, with Mickey decked out in blackface. There's a reason you don't really see that one playing when they run classic cartoons these days.

5. He may not have been on the front lines, but Mickey played his own small part during World War II.

Intelligence officers used "Mickey Mouse" as a password among themselves.

6. Disney wanted to name him "Mortimer."

The Mortimer Mouse Club doesn't exactly have the same ring to it, does it? We have Walt's wife Lillian to thank for the mouse's moniker—when he named his new character Mortimer, she told him she thought it sounded pompous and suggested the more kid-friendly "Mickey."

7. The supposed reason Mickey and his cartoon cohorts wear white gloves is simple.

It's so viewers can distinguish their hands when they were against their bodies.

8. You may have heard that Mickey Mouse is merely copyrighted, which would allow the character to eventually go into the public domain.

The Disney lawyers are all over that, of course. Mickey has also been trademarked, which means even when the copyright runs out, he's a protected as long as the Disney company continues to use him. And I don't foresee them exterminating the Mouse any time soon, do you?

9. We know Mickey as a wholesome, lovable little guy with only the best intentions—but his video game counterpart is a little "naughty."

Disney's Epic Mickey is a Wii game in which Mickey is a little less nice and a lot more deceptive and "naughty," says the game's designer, Warren Spector. "Mickey is never going to be evil or go around killing people," he said, but, "I wanted him to be able to be naughty—when you're playing as Mickey you can misbehave and even be a little selfish." The game also features a twisted take on Disneyland called "The Wasteland," a dark world Oswald the Lucky Rabbit created for cartoons who are past their prime. 

10. It's not just here in the States that Mickey is often a popular write-in vote for various elections—he's a candidate for office around the world.

In Sweden, though, it's Donald Duck (a.k.a. Kalle Anka) who is more likely to get voted in. "The Donald Duck Party" is what people write in when they either don't care or don't care for any of the candidates. In fact, in 2006, "The Donald Duck Party" came in 21st place out of the 40 represented parties running for office.

11. He's more controversial than you think.

The lovable character has been banned in Germany and Iran, from the Seoul Olympics, and Seattle liquor stores. In 1935, the Romanian government decided it would be best to not show Mickey on the large movie theater screens that were then new to the country because officials were worried that children would be terrified by the sight of a 10-foot-tall rodent. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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