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Erin McCarthy

10 Fun Facts About "It's A Small World"

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Erin McCarthy

Disney's classic ride, "It's A Small World," turned 50 this week! Here are a few facts to celebrate.

1. When Walt Disney first conceived the ride, it was called "Children of the World."

2. As many people know, the ride was originally an attraction at the 1964 New York World’s Fair before finding a permanent home at Disneyland. Here’s Walt showing off his creation on The Wonderful World of Color “Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair” episode (fast forward to the 32-minute mark):

3. When the ride first opened at Disneyland on May 28, 1966, Walt invited kids from around the world to come help dedicate it. They each brought a container of water from rivers and seas of their native lands and added it to the flume of the ride in Anaheim.

4. That earworm of a song is really the lesser of two evils. The first prototype of the idea included a cacophony of national anthems all running together as you sailed from nation to nation in your ride boats. The effect was more melting eardrums than melting pot, and Walt Disney knew it. He asked the Sherman Brothers (the geniuses behind other Disney classics like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and “The Wonderful Thing about Tiggers”) to come up with a single song that would unite his population of animatronic dolls. What they created, of course, was that song.

5. That song may very well be the most performed song of all time. Michael Eisner made the claim back in 1985, and many people were quick to doubt. But when the case is made that not many songs are played for 16 hours a day on a continuous loop in five different theme parks—well, that makes a difference, doesn’t it? Robert Sherman Jr. says, “Since 1983, there has not been a moment when 'It’s A Small World' wasn’t playing in at least two locations on the globe. Who else can claim that?”

6. More than 256 million people have experienced the ride.

7. Rumor has it that the turrets and gold ornaments on the exterior of the Disneyland building (the World’s Fair version) are real 22K gold. Although the original plan was to simply paint it gold, it didn’t take long to see that the paint would fade and oxidize so quickly that the cost to upkeep it would be more expensive than using real gold.

8. "It’s a Small World" in Disneyland was revamped a few years ago, leaving many fans crying foul. It wasn’t a simple maintenance update, you see—part of it was to include Disney characters in appropriate sections of the ride, for example, Alice in Wonderland in the U.K. Nearly 30 other characters were added, including Cinderella, Aladdin, Lilo, Pinocchio and Mulan. Many people saw it as a corporate twist on what was originally supposed to be a very innocent, non-branded affair. They also added an American scene which was lacking from the World’s Fair version—since the U.S. was the host country, no American scenes were used in 1964.

9. If you’re one of those people who is a bit creeped out by dolls, this ride may not be for you—there are about 300 of the eternally-smiling children that sing the song in each ride.

10. There are a few little surprises in each room if you have sharp eyes. For instance, every room has a moon and a sun somewhere within, paying tribute to the lyrics “There is just one moon and one golden sun.” In the room that represents Africa, a string of purple leaves resembles the classic tri-circle Mickey head silhouette. And my favorite, if it’s true, is that one doll in each “It’s a Small World” ride is made to look like Mary Blair, the artist behind the distinct look of the ride.

This piece originally appeared in 2011.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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
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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.