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The Quick 10: 10 Celebs Who Were Once Back Up Dancers

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Even the most famous people had to start somewhere; for people in the music industry, that means playing second-banana backup. Here are 10 dancers who started out doing just that before they took center stage for themselves.

1. Jennifer Lopez, of course, is the most famous In Living Color Fly Girl. She hit the ILC dance floor for seasons four and five, from 1991-1993. That means she shared the stage with another famous hoofer for a season or two"¦
2. Carrie Ann Inaba. Yep, before she was critiquing celebs on Dancing with the Stars, Carrie Ann was busting a move as a Fly Girl. I wonder if it was strange to judge David Alan Grier during DWTS season 8? Completely unrelated but rather interesting (at least, in my opinion) - Carrie Ann was a popular singer in Japan in the '80s and released three singles. She was also "Fook Yu" in Austin Powers in Goldmember.

3. Heather Morris. You may not know the name, but you probably know who I mean - and you definitely know her if you're a Gleek like me. Heather plays the dim-witted Brittany on Glee and gets some of the best lines on the show. But she wasn't even supposed to be on the show - she was simply hired because she was one of Beyonce's backup dancers for Single Ladies and they needed someone to teach the cast the dance for an episode. Heather was so great they hired her as a full-time cast member. Here she is performing with Sasha Fierce herself:

4. Kevin Federline. Looking at him today, it's a little hard to believe that K-Fed was in good enough shape to dance with the likes of Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani and Pink. But once upon a time, he was. I'm going to link to a compilation of his dance moves instead of embed it because it says in the comments exactly where you can find him in each video. Yes, I watched all nine minutes of the clips. I did it for you.

5. Madonna. Early in her career, Madonna was chosen to be a backup singer and dancer for French disco singer Patrick Hernandez. One source says Hernandez disliked her "overly independent nature" and gave her the boot after just a few gigs.

6. Tupac. He was a back up dancer for the likes of Humpty Hump when he joined Digital Underground's crew in 1990. The YouTube user who uploaded this video says that's Tupac in red doing the Humpty Dance - what do you think? Legit? I can't tell.

7. Julianne Hough. She actually started as a back-up dancer on the Dancing With the Stars live tour and parlayed it into a regular gig. Now she's moved on to other things, such as a career in country music and spokesperson for ProActiv.

8. Michael K. Williams. You know this guy if you're a fan of The Wire - he played Omar. He got his big break in the business dancing for Crystal Waters, Tupac and Madonna.

9. Wade Robson. The famous choreographer was in three Michael Jackson videos after MJ saw him perform some of his own difficult dance moves. Wade mostly moved into a career in choreography after that, but he did dance in NSync's Pop video when Joey Fatone was injured the night before the video was shot.

10. Cris Judd. You probably know him as J. Lo's ex - she met him while he was doing some back up dancing for her. He appeared in four of her music videos, in fact. These days, he's still dancing - he appeared in the tribute to Michael Jackson last year when Janet danced alongside a video version of Michael to their duet Scream. But he's also acting, choreographing and judging various dance reality shows.

Know any other celebs who started out in the background? Tell us in the comments!

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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