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An interview with Jason Alexander

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Jason Alexander is known to TV audiences around the world, of course, as George Costanza on Seinfeld, a role which garnered him six Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations, an American Television Award and two American Comedy Awards. He's also appeared in numerous films like Pretty Woman, in TV commercials, and in Broadway musicals where he won a Tony for his role in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. He also starred alongside Martin Short in the acclaimed L.A. production of The Producers. More recently, he's been directing things like Sam Shepard's God of Hell as well as his own newly-adapted rendition of Damn Yankees for the Los Angeles Reprise Theater Company, where he serves as Artistic Director. Jason is also a spokesman for OneVoice, an organization committed to promoting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Through his interest in giving back to the community, I had the good fortune of interviewing him after he spoke at a gala fund raising event for a charity I'm involved with. (You may recall our recent effort to eradicate hunger here in Los Angeles.) He was, as he always is, blunt and hilarious. Please feel free to drop a comment at the end of the interview telling us your all-time favorite Jason Alexander moment.

DI: You're a man of many talents: actor, stand-up comedian, musical theater star, magician, poker player. Which do you enjoy the most?

JA: You left out: writer, director, martial artist and sex symbol. Now here's my favorite "“ father.

DI: You've worked with some of the greats of stage and screen (big and small). From Jerry Robbins to Jerry Seinfeld, from Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Julia Roberts. Who's been the most influential?

JA: Best director I've ever had "“ Joe Mantello (Love, Valor, Compassion); Best teacher "“Larry Moss. The word genius gets thrown around a lot. I've only met two in my line of work "“Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. They think like no other people I know. I understand more from knowing them. I am a better person because of what they have given the world.

DI: The name on your birth certificate is Jay Scott Greenspan. Okay: we get Jason from Jay S but what about Alexander? Where'd that come from?

JA: Alexander the Great, clearly. Okay, I lied. I thought I would be Jason Scott, but when I went to register in the union with that name, it was taken with every possible spelling "“ including Jaisin Skot. Feeling badly about not using my family name, I made a snap decision to take my dad's first name as my last one for the stage. Hence "“ Jason Alexander.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JA: Mahatma Gandhi. First, he was always fasting so I doubt it would be a big bill if I had to pick up the check. Second, I want to know how so much wisdom, courage and strength could reside in a single soul. If the Mahatma couldn't make it, I'd take Ben Kingsley for an hour "“ but he's not dead.

seinfeld-cast-getty-5203121DI: What's your favorite beverage?

JA: Diet Coke. Never been a better beverage on the planet. They shouldn't touch it "“ don't mess with it. It's perfect. I'm not losing weight, but I don't blame the soda.

DI: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

JA: I wanted to be a magician. I worked at it very studiously. A few years ago, I started performing at the Magic Castle. I won an award given by fellow magicians. It meant almost as much as an Oscar. I assume"¦ I don't actually have an Oscar.

DI: Who's your idol?

JA: I don't believe in idols. Isn't that the first commandment? But one of my heroes is TJ Leyden "“ a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead who has risked his life teaching young people the subversive, destructive power of hate and the redemptive and miraculous power of decency, education, responsibility and love. I have done the foreword for his book Skinhead Confessions: From Hate to Hope and I consider him a good friend. I also adore men like Daniel Lubetsky of the OneVoice organization who has dedicated his life to empowering moderate populations to take control of their own journeys to peace. He is a constant inspiration.

DI: Do you miss the days when you could hold an album jacket in your hands and page through the liner notes or are MP3s just as good?

JA: I don't get nutty over packaging "“ only over content.

DI: What's one of your favorite novels?

JA: I adore Richard Bach's Illusions "“ The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I read it every year on my birthday. It is a remarkable way to look at life. I've been trying to turn it into a stage musical for years. I must imagine it done sometime. (Read the book, you'll understand.)

DI: What's your favorite junk food?

JA: Double Stuf Oreos. Fantastic with Diet Coke.

DI: Dodgers or Angels? (Or should we ask: Yankees or Mets?)

JA: Honestly? I could care less. My uncle, Jack Simon, directed the Met, Knick and Ranger games while I was growing up. The Mets are in my blood. George worked for the Yankees, but Jason cheered for the Mets.

DI: Who's your favorite Saturday Night Live player of all time?

JA: That's hard because there have been so many great players and so diverse a range of comedy. But I have to say that I consistently laughed out loud over and over watching Billy Crystal. I thought he was brilliant. And when I hosted, Adam Sandler broke me up, live on the air.

DI: You were born in Newark, N.J. Many other notables hail from Newark, including Brian De Palma, Allen Ginsberg, Whitney Houston, Jerry Lewis, Shaquille O'Neal, Philip Roth, and Paul Simon. Is there something in the water there?

JA: I don't remember much about Newark, but I can assure you the dominant beverage is not water.

Picture 3DI: Did you have a bar mitzvah? If so, what do you remember most?

JA: I was bar mitzvahed in a conservative"“leaning to Orthodox temple. I had a mega bar mitzvah. A three-hour service that was about 2.5 hours of me. I remember we couldn't have a band at the reception, so I sang with my friend, Brian Clark. And boy, did we make money!

DI: You've done lots of TV commercials for different types of products. Which is your favorite?

JA: I did a spot for Western Union that ran on and off for eight years. It will put my kid through college. I'd consider that a personal favorite.

DI: What memento did you take with you from the Seinfeld set?

JA: I've got lots of George clothes. I've got the George glasses. And I've got two final scripts signed by EVERYBODY! I'm not a big collector. Mostly, I have nine years of great memories and more laughs than I know what to do with.

DI: When you hear someone call out the name George, do you ever think they're talking to you?

JA: I used to. But after I turned around all smug-like a few times to discover they were calling someone named George, I learned my lesson.

DI: Any guilty pleasure television on your TiVO?

JA: Nothing that's total crap. It's hard to make me laugh out loud. Family Guy does it every time. They're genius.

DI: Anything you wish we'd have asked?

JA: When will they remake Fiddler on the Roof with me? I don't know, but my mom is 88 "“ they better hurry.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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