Original image

The Quick 10: The Hollywood Walk of Fame

Original image

The Hollywood Walk of Fame celebrates its 50-year anniversary this week. Although a big block-party-style bash is scheduled for later this summer after some much-needed renovations are complete, the actual construction kickoff happened on February 8, 1960, with the star ceremony taking place the following day. Since Hollywood's celebration is still a few months away, we thought we'd help celebrate the official day in our own meager way "“ by featuring the WoF in a Q10.

woodward1. The first stars were actually put in place in 1958 so the Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. City Council could show the town what they had in mind. But construction didn't start on the full plan until February 8, 1960. The first official dedication ceremony was for Joanne Woodward and her star the next day, but the Walk of Fame site still lists her official induction date as the 1958 date the prototypes were unveiled. The first new star to be laid was in honor of director and producer Stanley Kramer.

2. After the unveiling of the first eight prototype stars in 1958, the Chamber and the City were promptly sued by Charlie Chaplin's son, who was upset his father hadn't been included. Charlie Sr. is there now, but he had to wait another 14 years for his April 10, 1972 induction.

3. As with most things in Hollywood, induction to the Walk of Fame is going to cost you (or your movie studio). Upon selection, someone has to cough up $25,000, which pays for the star's creation, installation and maintenance. But Hollywood's honorary mayor, the late Johnny Grant, once said in an interview that it wasn't uncommon for film studios to offer up to four times that amount. "These studios, when they want a star and they've got a picture opening, they'd give you $100,000," he said. Sometimes fan clubs also foot the bill.

johnnygrantstar4. The vast majority of the stars fall under five categories. You can discern what the celebrity was inducted for by checking out the icon in the middle of their star: a motion picture camera represents the film industry, a T.V. set represents the television industry, a phonograph record denotes the recording industry, an old radio microphone shows that the celeb contributed to broadcast radio, and comedy/tragedy masks represent live theater. There are a few exceptions to this rule, including the Great Seal of Hollywood icon on Johnny Grant's star, the seal of the city of L.A. on L.A. mayor Tom Bradley's star and Disneyland's castle emblem. Additionally, the members of the Apollo XI mission are jointly honored with a moon shape instead of the traditional star.

5. If you're looking for Muhammad Ali's star, you're going to have better luck scanning the walls of the Kodak Theater than looking down at your feet. When he was inducted in 2002, Ali requested that his star be placed elsewhere because he didn't like the idea of being walked on, the committee agreed. So far, it's the only star to be placed anywhere other than the ground. In case you're curious, Ali apparently falls under the category "live theater."

6. So far, Gene Autry is the only person who has a star in each of the five categories.

7. There are three dogs honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You're probably familiar with Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, but the third one is a little more obscure (and was also the first dog honored): Strongheart, a German shepherd who was the first celebrity canine.

8. Shockingly, Judge Judy beat Judge Wapner to the Walk of Fame. She was honored in February 2006, while Lana Turner's ex-beau didn't get a star until last year.

9. Twenty or so stars are added to the WoF every year. The latest? Ringo Starr, who is being inducted tonight. He already has one as a part of the Beatles, of course, but he's now the third Beatle to be honored individually. Paul McCartney still doesn't have one for his solo efforts.

10. Each star is made of pink terrazzo. The slabs weigh about 300 pounds each, but that hasn't stopped thieves from making off with a few of them. Jimmy Stewart and Kirk Douglas both had their stars stolen by a contractor who was helping on some renovations to the WoF. They were both later found, but only after the stars had been replaced. It was probably for the best anyway "“ the stars had gotten badly damaged while in the "care" of the contractor. Gregory Peck's star suffered the same fate in 2005. One of Gene Autry's stars was also stolen during a construction project; Johnny Grant later received a call saying it had popped up in Iowa, but no one bothered to return it. I'm so proud.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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!

Original image
Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]