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Dustin Hoffman - Up Close & Personal

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Dustin Hoffman's 42-year stage and screen career is legendary. From his edgy breakthrough performance in The Graduate, which paved the way for ethnic-looking actors in male leading roles, to his comic portrayal of both Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie, Hoffman's impact on American cinema is almost unequaled. These thoughts are from an informal interview/talk Hoffman gave that I was fortunate to have attended.

On becoming an actor

I never thought about being an actor when I was growing up. My parents put a piano in front of me and decided I was going to be a concert pianist. In those days, if you were black, you wanted to own a Cadillac and if you were Jewish, you wanted your son to be a concert pianist. So acting wasn't even a thought in my head. I only took an acting course in college because I was a terrible student and was told that no one fails acting—it was like gym class.

On landing his first starring role

In those days, you had to be tall, Aryan, blonde with blue eyes to get a leading part. These were values that the Jewish studio heads wanted. They created a kind of Christian, gentile reality. So for The Graduate, originally they wanted Robert Redford for the part of Benjamin Braddock, the WASP from New England as it's written in the Charles Webb novel. When they asked me, I didn't think I could play a role like that. Guys who were short and ethnic-looking, like me, didn't play roles like that. But then [director Mike] Nichols said to me, "Did you read the book?" and I said, "Yes." And he said, "Did you think it was funny?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Well, maybe [Benjamin Braddock] is Jewish on the inside." And that's how he talked me into doing a test for it.

On his movie Ishtar

What the movie says is: Isn't it more important to spend your life doing what you're passionate about, albeit second-rate, than to be first-rate and successful at something that you don't care about. Even though it's a flawed movie, I still love it.

On culture in Los Angeles

There is a lot of culture here in Los Angeles; you just have to kind of look for it. The one thing that Los Angeles lacks is the ability and spontaneity to walk out the door and not know where you're going and not care. Here, you have to know where you're going because if you walk, you'll get stopped by a cop.

On gratuitous violence in Hollywood

I will not pick up a gun on camera unless the scene absolutely calls for it. I remember hearing President Clinton speak at CAA (Creative Artists Agency), and he said the kids who are affected by violence in films don't have families. It's very romantic for them, he said, because the gangs are their families. So violence gives them a sense of identity, whereas for us it's just entertainment. And everyone at CAA applauded and I said to my wife that I'd like to tell the President: "Mr. President, I want you to know when you're finished speaking and all these people go back to their offices, they're not going to change their behavior one iota because it's money to them." So I do feel very strongly about this.

On volunteering and philanthropy

I don't think I'm a good example because I made a choice to spend all my time being an artist and raising my family. When I hear how other people are so active with causes, my first thought always is: I hope their kids are getting it first. I mean, I have six kids and that's a lot of work. Maybe now is the time I'll start to get involved because the kids are out of the house. But it's hard for me because I'd like to know where the money is going. You hear that money raised for Tsunami relief never reached the people. I've given to individuals at times, but I'm very quiet about whatever I do. And when people ask of my time, I do it if I can because it is gratifying. I should probably do it more often.

photo courtesy PLATON/CPI

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]