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10 Absurd Facts About the Worst Director of All Time

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October 10th was the birthday of Ed Wood, Jr. – the quirky filmmaker frequently referred to as the worst director of all time. But that moniker really sells him short. He was also an awful writer, actor and producer. What he lacked in filmmaking acumen he more than made up for in confidence, focus and panache. So, here now – in honor of what would have been his 86th birthday – are 10 absurd facts about Ed Wood, Jr.:

  1. Wood had a now well-known penchant for cross-dressing. This affinity for female garb inspired one of his more famous films, Glen or Glenda. It’s believed that it was Wood’s mother that first introduced him to cross-dressing, because of her intense desire for a daughter.
  2. Wood joined the Army at a young age and claims to have been involved in the famous Battle of Guadalcanal – all while secretly wearing women’s undergarments beneath his Army uniform.
  3. As a young man, Wood joined a carnival, appearing in the freak show as the bearded lady.
  4. As a jack-of-all-trades of his own films, Wood billed himself under a number of different pseudonyms, including Ann Gora (in reference to Angora - his favorite female textile) and Akdov Telmig (The backwards form of his favorite drink, the vodka gimlet).
  5. His pride and joy, Plan 9 From Outer Space, is notoriously-awful – featuring a number of shoddy special effects and cinematography errors. Among them: flying saucers suspended on clearly-visible strings, scenes which bounce back and forth from day to night, and cardboard grave markers that sway back and forth. The most famous, however, is Wood’s decision to utilize footage of Bela Lugosi shot for another film. He didn’t let the fact that fact that Lugosi had recently passed away of a heart attack stop him, either. He simply recast the role – giving it to a family doctor that had never acted before and didn’t resemble Lugosi in any way. As a result, the replacement actor awkwardly held his cape in front of his face in each of his scenes.
  6. Plan 9 From Outer Space was originally titled Grave Robbers From Outer Space. However, Wood was forced to change the title by the Baptist Church that he’d convinced to bankroll the film.
  7. In 1959, Wood directed a follow-up to Plan 9 From Outer Space entitled Night of the Ghouls, but audiences didn’t see the film until 23 years later. The reason? A processing lab had the film and Wood could not afford to pay his bill to get the footage back.
  8. Wood was known to frequently prank his wife Kathleen by pretending to be dying. This ultimately came back to haunt him when he suffered a real heart attack on December 10, 1978 and allegedly yelled for his wife in the next room of their home for more than an hour. Kathleen, believing he was once again pulling a hoax, didn’t check on him for more than an hour. When she finally did, he was dead.
  9. Wood never enjoyed the fruits of the iconic, campy status he now holds in film history. The movement to revisit and discuss his mostly forgotten works began, in large part, a few years after his death when a book called The Golden Turkey Awards named him The Worst Director of All Time. The same book named Plan 9 From Outer Space as the Worst Film of All Time.
  10. In 1996, a Californian named Steve Galindo established The Church of Ed Wood. Although admittedly started as a joke, the religion is now a legally-recognized religious organization. Alas though, Galindo and his followers may be may be just as good at leading a faith as Wood was at leading a film set. A note of their website currently reads: “PLEASE HELP THE CHURCH OF ED WOOD!!! Reverend Steve and The Church of Ed Wood are having SEVERE financial difficulties and need YOUR help!”

Yesterday was October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we planned a bunch of 10 lists, and the mass listeria has spilled into 10.11.10. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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