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This Post, Should You Choose to Read It: Remembering Peter Graves

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Veteran actor Peter Graves passed away last weekend. Even though the poor guy went to his grave with people asking him "Do you like gladiator movies?" we'd like everyone to remember that he had a very long career prior to (and after) Airplane! Here are a few stories you might not have heard about Peter Graves.

He Wasn't the First Mission:Impossible Team Leader

Peter Graves starred as James Phelps on TV's Mission: Impossible from 1967 to 1973. M:I fans remember Graves as the character who opened each episode -- he was the one who received the tape recording (which self-destructed) and dossier that outlined each week's story to the viewers. However, he wasn't the original M:I team leader. During the series' first season, that role was played by actor Steven Hill as Daniel Briggs. Hill had been the personal choice of series creator Bruce Geller, who signed him to a contract -- despite his demands. As a strict Orthodox Jew, Hill left the set regularly on Fridays before sunset whether a scene was finished or not. His costumes and wardrobe -- down to his shoes and hosiery -- had to be specially ordered from New York in order to assure that they were kosher.

Desilu Productions was bleeding money in overtime costs in order to accommodate Hill's schedule, and CBS wanted to replace him with Peter Graves, their first choice for the role. Graves, they felt, was more of a leading man than Hill, had a solid background in B-movies, a serious, no-nonsense demeanor and had no troublesome on-set tantrums on his permanent record. But Lucille Ball, then the head of Desilu Productions, sided with Geller and Hill retained the role. When Ball sold Desilu to Gulf + Western in 1967, CBS did not renew Hill's contract and Peter Graves became the man who got to choose whether or not to accept the mission.

He Worked with Giant Grasshoppers (and kept a straight face)

The 1950s were a hotbed of Creatures Gone Wild films, from Tarantula to the giant ants in Them to The Blob. One memorable entry in this genre was 1957's Beginning of the End, in which enormous grasshoppers threaten to destroy Chicago. Graves' portrayal of scientist Dr. Ed Wainwright helped to make this film the biggest money-maker in director Bert I. Gordon's portfolio. Graves was no stranger to sci-fi at the time; roles in Killers from Space and It Conquered the World helped pay the bills for his wife and three daughters. Like the true professional he was, Graves never camped it up no matter how cheesy the film; he always played it straight and managed to inject an element of believability into his character.

He Graduated from the University of Minnesota

"¦but the screenplay based on his years at U of M remains unproduced:

Close, but No Award

Even though his Mission: Impossible co-star Barbara Bain won three Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Cinnamon Carter, Peter Graves was only nominated for that award just once during his M:I years -- and he lost to Carl Betz for his work on Judd for the Defense. Graves won his sole Emmy in 1997 as host of the A&E Channel's documentary Judy Garland: Beyond the Rainbow.

His Real Last Name Was "Aurness"

The family's surname is Aurness; when Pete's big brother, Jim, launched his acting career he dropped the "u" from the spelling. By the time Peter got the acting bug, James already had several movie roles under his belt. In order to avoid confusion, Pete adopted his maternal grandfather's middle name, Graves, as his new last name. Probably a good thing, because James Arness went on to have a 20 year run as Marshall Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.

He Didn't want to be Oveur

airplane-oveurWhen Graves first read the Airplane! script, he told his agent that it was "the worst piece of junk" he'd ever seen. Moreover, he feared that the proposed role of Captain Oveur would not only ruin his career, but the implied pedophiliac tendencies of his character could also land him in jail. A face-to-face meeting with David and Jerry Zucker changed his mind. They explained that the straight-laced Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible playing such a comedic role would be an immediate hit with the audience (it also helped that they'd already recruited tough-as-nails Robert Stack of The Untouchables fame for a similarly uncharacteristic part in their film). Of course, the producers were right: the role actually expanded Graves' career into unforeseen comedic areas (much like the film did for Leslie Nielsen). Behold the power of spoofing oneself!

Thanks to Airplane! He Could Discuss "Tangerine Lip Gloss" with a Straight Face

Had Graves not appeared as deadpan pilot Clarence Oveur, he probably would've never been tapped for the big-bucks-royalties-for-an-hour-of-work world of TV commercials. Remember the gravitas he added a real customer's case for Geico insurance?

When All is Said and Done, He was a Good Solid Midwestern Guy with a Strong Family Ethic

When Graves left Minnesota for Hollywood in 1949, his girlfriend Joan Endress followed him. Neither one thought it appropriate to live together before marriage, so Joan got an apartment and a job working in a doctor's office, and Peter got a room in a boarding house across the street. They were sort of "pre-engaged," dating only each other but deciding not to get married until Peter got an actual contract as a working actor. When he landed a role in Rogue River in 1950, he officially proposed and the pair were wed with the blessing of the bride's parents. Sixty years later, Peter and Joan were returning from Sunday brunch with their three adult daughters when he collapsed just outside his house with what would later be determined to be a fatal heart attack.

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technology
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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