The Surprising Voices Behind Cartoon Characters

Last week we asked you to give us a few of your favorite surprising identities behind cartoon voiceovers. After checking out your terrific comments, we present a few voiceover artists you might not have suspected.

Brad Garrett as Hulk Hogan

When the then-WWF expanded into Saturday morning cartoons with Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling in 1985, it actually got the Hulkster himself to appear in the show's live-action sequences. Hogan wasn't going to be caught dead near the animated sequences, though, so a young Brad Garrett picked up his voice duties. Apparently nobody cared that Hulk Hogan and Brad Garrett don't sound anything like each other. Watch the incredible opening credits, then hear Garrett spark a little Hulkamania:

James Avery as Shredder

Here's one you might have missed when you were a kid: the voice of Shredder in the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon was none other than James Avery, better known as Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Uncle Phil has actually displayed his booming voice in quite a few animated shows, including voicing the late Junkyard Dog in the aforementioned Rock 'n' Wrestling. Here's a video of Avery talking about the profound levels he found in the Shredder character. (Yes, really.)

The Entire Cast of Captain Planet and the Planeteers

This eco-friendly cartoon did more than just teach kids the hazards of pollutions; it showcased some top-flight vocal talent. Get a load of this cast: LeVar Burton as Kwame, Whoopi Goldberg as Gaia, Ed Asner as Hoggish Greedly, James Coburn as Looten Plunder, Meg Ryan as Dr. Blight, Tim Curry as MAL, Dean Stockwell as Duke Nukem, John Ratzenberger as Rigger, Martin Sheen as Sky Sludge, Sting as Zarm, and Jeff Goldblum as Verminous Skumm. Here's a clip that highlights Ryan, Stockwell, and, of course, the greatest green mullet of all time:

Jaleel White as Sonic the Hedgehog

When everyone's favorite ring-collecting hedgehog jumped from the Sega Genesis to cartoons with 1993's The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, he picked up an odd voice: Steve Urkel's. Jaleel White of Family Matters fame voiced the spiny protagonist for all 30 episodes of the show's run. He shows up at about the one-minute mark in this clip:

Carlos Alazraqi as Rocko

You might know Carlos Alazraqui from his run as Deputy James Garcia in the first five seasons of Reno 911!, but he's had quite the voiceover career. He voiced the titular wallaby on Rocko's Modern Life, Mr. Weed on The Family Guy, and the Taco Bell chihuaha. Here's Deputy Garcia voicing Rocko:

William Conrad as the narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle

Modern audiences might remember Conrad as District Attorney J.L. "Fatman" McCabe on the CBS crime drama Jake and the Fatman. They might not know that the Fatman brought his baritone pipes to the narration of Rocky and Bullwinkle from 1959 until the show's demise in 1964.

Alan Young as Scrooge McDuck

Young's name may not be the most familiar, but he famously provided the voice of everyone's favorite talking horse, Mr. Ed. Young has another famous voice role, too; he has been voicing Scrooge McDuck since 1983's Mickey's Christmas Carol. Compare the two voices:

Fergie as Sallly Brown

Long before she became the pop star Fergie, Stacy Ferguson voiced Charlie Brown's sister Sally in the short-lived CBS cartoon The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show from 1983 until 1985. Have a listen:

Phil Hartman as Mr. Wilson and Dennis the Menace's Dad

The animated Dennis the Menace series only ran from 1986 until 1988, but it had some interesting vocal talent. Dennis' voice came from Brennan Thicke, son of Growing Pains star Alan Thicke and older brother of singer Robin Thicke. The real draw, though, was that Phil Hartman voiced grumpy neighbor Mr. Wilson for the entire first season in addition to voicing Dennis' dad.

Richard Moll and Mark Hamill as Two-Face and the Joker

The early 90s Batman series brought the heat when it came to voicing the villains. Moll (Bull from Night Court) lent his vocal talents to Harvey Dent, while Luke skywalker himself voiced the Clown Prince of Crime. Here's a quick clip of Moll as Two-Face, as well as an interview with Hamill and the producers talking about the Joker character:

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.