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ABC News

5 Fast Facts About Abraham Zapruder

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ABC News

Abraham Zapruder’s amateur footage of the John F. Kennedy assassination is one of the world’s most instantly recognizable clips. Zapruder himself doesn’t get quite as much press, so let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the cameraman and the odd journey his film has taken.

1. He Wasn’t a Professional Cameraman

Most of us remember Zapruder as the man behind the most famous home movie of all time, but he wasn't a professional filmmaker. His real work was in the dress game.

Zapruder, who had immigrated to New York from the Ukrainian city of Kovel as a teenager, found work in the garment industry and eventually opened Jennifer Juniors in Dallas. His offices were in the Dal-Tex building located across the street from the Texas School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots at the presidential motorcade.

2. He Didn’t Even Want to Take His Camera

The famous film might not even exist if not for the persistence of Zapruder’s secretary.

Zapruder had originally planned on bringing his camera, a Bell & Howell Director Series Model 414 Zoomatic, to work with him to film the motorcade. When he woke up on the morning of the assassination, though, he thought it was too gloomy outside to get decent footage, so he left the camera at home.

By midday the weather had brightened up, and Zapruder’s secretary convinced him that it was worth the trouble to go home and retrieve the camera. Zapruder eventually relented. He then headed out to Dealey Plaza to find a good place to film.

Tourist Stands Where Zapruder Filmed. © Barbara Davidson/Dallas Morning News/Corbis

3. The Film Earned Him a Lot of Money

Zapruder quickly contacted authorities and let them know that he had footage of the assassination. Since Oswald had been taken into custody relatively quickly, it didn’t seem that the film would have all that much value to any investigation. The Secret Service and FBI asked Zapruder for copies, but they told him the original was his. Whether he kept the film or sold it was up to him.

Zapruder was open to selling the footage, but he wanted to make sure it ended up in the hands of a group that would treat it with dignity. (Zapruder later revealed having nightmares about exploitation theaters showing the film for a quick buck.) Life magazine swooped in and bought the print rights of the film for $50,000. The magazine then realized that it would be smart to buy all of the rights, so it renegotiated a deal in which Zapruder would receive six annual payments of $25,000 in exchange for the print and motion picture rights.

Zapruder didn’t hoard the money, though. His lawyer worried that the story of a Jewish man cashing in on the assassination might incite anti-Semitic sentiment around Dallas, so Zapruder gave the first $25,000 payment to the widow of policeman J.D. Tippit, one of Oswald’s other victims.

4. His Family Got the Film Back…

The American public got its first look at the full film when ABC’s Good Night America (with Geraldo Rivera) ran it as part of a March 1975 broadcast. The next month Time Inc. sold the copyright and the original film back to the Zapruder family for $1. (Abraham Zapruder had died of stomach cancer in 1970.)

Zapruder’s family really capitalized on the film after reacquiring the copyright. His son rented the film out for one-time viewings, and although estimates of the exact fee vary, Oliver Stone allegedly paid at least $40,000 to use the footage in his film JFK.

5. …and Then Lost It Again

A 1997 decision by the Assassination Records Review Board took the original copy out of the Zapruder family’s hands. As an important artifact of the assassination, the film itself became a permanent part of the National Archives’ Kennedy Collection. (According to a New York Times story that ran when the film changed hands, it had become so fragile after years of viewings and copying that the original could no longer be projected for fear of damaging it.) The National Archives had already had physical possession of the film for nearly 20 years; the family had given it to the Archives in 1978 for safekeeping.

The Justice Department actually had the task of acquiring the film and compensating the Zapruder family for its loss, and that’s where things got interesting. The government offered $1 million. The Zapruder family countered that since it was a one-of-a-kind relic, it should be valued more like a Van Gogh painting. Their counteroffer: $30 million. After a couple of years of haggling, a federal arbitration panel awarded the Zapruders a $16 million payment for the film in 1999.

That fee only paid for the physical copy of the film, though. The Zapruder family maintained ownership of the copyright. Not for long, though. On December 30, 1999, the family donated the copyright, along with its collection of films and photographs, to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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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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May 23, 2017
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