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James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons

James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia has a new show premiering tonight (Wednesday, January 19) at 10pm Eastern on Investigation Discovery. It's called "James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons." It focuses on true crime in Los Angeles, primarily in the 40's, 50's, and 60's. And it's one of the weirdest things I've seen on cable TV in a long time. Here's the trailer:

The Fascinating Weirdness of James Ellroy

Ellroy is a man obsessed with crime victims. And he has good reason: in his memoir My Dark Places, he goes into detail about his mother's murder when he was just ten years old. That murder remains unsolved, despite various attempts over the years (including a remarkable chapter in My Dark Places detailing how the murder was featured on Unsolved Mysteries in 1996).

The first episode of Ellroy's new TV show is entitled Dead Women Own Me (a phrase that also appears in My Dark Places), and discusses his mother's murder in some depth, including some of his own efforts to solve it in the 90's. Ellroy doesn't shy away from this intensely personal topic -- after all, he's been talking and writing about it for decades, so he seems completely comfortable with the material. This episode is well-crafted, and if it interests you, you'll want to read at least My Dark Places and perhaps his more recent memoir, The Hilliker Curse.

But what's weird about Ellroy is his bombastic tone, and how that tone interacts with what is fundamentally a reality TV series -- albeit one with a historical focus. Ellroy speaks with a choppy cadence, in a style honed over decades of public readings and press interviews. It comes across as a ferocious mix of hep-cat 50's lingo, alliteration ripped from the pages of Confidential magazine, and a level of personal grandiosity developed from many years being hailed (probably correctly) as America's premiere crime novelist. As a viewer, I came to understand Ellroy's attitude as a character he created as a result of his history. This guy has created a public version of himself, his remarkably dark early life has influenced this character, and what he presents should often be taken with a wink. If you take everything Ellroy says at face value, you're certainly missing something.

To some, Ellroy's personal style will come off as completely unwatchable -- and that's rough, because the show actually has interesting things to say, and not just about crime. The show has a lot to do with cultural obsessions with crime, why people care about murderers, misogyny, personal effects of crime on family members, and Ellroy's own intriguing personal story. But let's put it in context: this is a man who no longer reads books, doesn't listen to modern music, and does not participate in pop culture in general (and hasn't since sometime in the 80's or early 90's). I can see how stewing in his own crime fiction, listening exclusively to classical musical (he has a thing for Beethoven), and not reading books for 20-ish years would heighten his style, but also detach him from the mainstream. Thus, trying to enter a modern mainstream genre like reality TV seems like an odd move. For some, the resulting weirdness will be a hook -- much like David Lynch's general strangeness can add surreality to a story, as long as it doesn't distract the viewer or yank him out of the narrative. For others it'll just be too much, or it'll come off as pure affectation. Ellroy does have affectations -- insanely over-the-top ones -- but he's so consistent with them that they become pretty appealing.

I should also emphasize that you see a tender side of Ellroy in the second episode, when he speaks with Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl, and when he speaks about the murder of his friends' daughter. All of his affectations are gone in those segments, and you see a man who is very interested in getting to the truth of a person (in these cases, all women), and respecting the people who were affected by the crime. Of course, he goes right back to "the full Ellroy" moments later, but it's useful to know that there's Ellroy the man and Ellroy the performer -- and we get to see both in this series.

Barko, the Computer-Generated Talking Crime Dog

It is particularly remarkable that Ellroy -- a man who doesn't use computers or cell phones -- chose his for his dramatic foil a computer-animated talking crime dog named Barko. (Barko is nominally an LAPD K-9 cop, though he's also a literal talking dog...don't think about it too hard or you'll just get lost.) In the series, Barko acts as a bad influence on Ellroy, leading him down a dark path. In the two episodes I've seen, Barko seems to have Ellroy under his spell, so I can only assume that Barko will lead Ellroy into some very compromising situations. (A version of Barko has appeared before in Ellroy's writing, and is named for a real-life dog Ellroy had in years past.)

But let's pause here for a minute. Ellroy is America's premiere crime novelist and he is talking to a computer-generated dog in significant portions of his television show. How wonderful that this is happening in 2011, and how very strange.

The Audience

This show is not for kids. Period, full-stop. It is full of lurid details, shocking photos (with the most shocking bits blurred), and plenty of bleeped language. So get the kids out of the room or they'll be talking to their own animated crime dogs soon enough. This show's subject matter includes sordid, dark topics -- murder, tabloid journalism, and the glamorous-but-dangerous mixture that was midcentury Los Angeles.

So who is this show for? I'd say it's for adults who are interested in true crime, American history, or pop culture of a bygone era. It doesn't hurt if you like a little weirdness or have read (or seen the better film adaptations) of Ellroy's novels. The second episode explains Confidential magazine (which made a fictionalized appearance as "Hush-Hush" in L.A. Confidential). Without ruining anything, I'll just tell you that this was a bit of tabloid history I knew nothing about before seeing this show. Ellroy and other experts explain how Confidential managed to print unbelievably scandalous material and avoid lawsuits. It's a remarkable lesson in business and legal rights, not to mention an incredible story in its own right.

Part of Ellroy's signature writing style (notably his use of alliteration) came from Confidential, and it's fascinating to see what this magazine was, and how important it was to Hollywood culture starting in the 1950's. You can take a look at how Confidential operated, and then step back (possibly in horror) to recognize how its approach to media and celebrity gossip permeated our popular culture over the following decades. Although Confidential is gone, its influence lives on, and not just in grocery store tabloids -- today most of this stuff happens on gossip blogs.

Without this series, I probably never would have known that Confidential existed, or that some of the events described in L.A. Confidential were closer to the truth than I could have imagined. So it is genuinely educational, if a bit lurid around the edges. And who doesn't like some racy stuff along with educational content? Oh right, I'll say it again: KIDS.

An Interview With James Ellroy?

I had hoped to include my interview with James Ellroy in this review, but due to scheduling and technical problems, you'll have to wait for next week to read it. I hope to post it by next Wednesday, before the second episode of the show airs. Let's just say it's tough to get the man on the phone for long, on the day his show premieres. Assuming we get the kinks worked out, the interview will focus primarily on this show, with some more discussion of Barko, Ellroy's grandiose character, and what it's like to take his work to the small screen.

In the meantime, set your DVRs for the Investigation Discovery channel, 10pm Eastern, Wednesdays. (I'm on the west coast, and my cable company is airing it at 7pm -- so check your local listings.) The show is set for a six-episode run to start; if you like the first episode (a brief trailer is below), you're gonna want to check out this James Ellroy character some more -- he's a hell of a writer, and I want to see where he'll take us on this weird, wild ride through the heinous history of Los Angeles.

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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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