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5 Things You Didn't Know About Judge Wapner

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A 1989 Washington Post poll revealed that only nine percent of Americans could correctly identify William Rehnquist as the Chief Justice of the United States. In news that surely made civics teachers everywhere cringe, though, a stout 54 percent of Americans knew that Joseph Wapner was the judge on The People’s Court. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the most famous TV judge of the 1980s.

1. His Show Was Almost Very Different

If NBC had gotten its way, Wapner would never have appeared on the bench of The People’s Court. The show made its TV debut in 1981, but executive producer Stu Billett had been futilely trying to sell the concept since 1975. Only NBC had any interest in Billett’s idea, but the network wanted something quite a bit different.

NBC’s idea went something like this: an African-American comedian (preferably Nipsey Russell or Pigmeat Markham) would act as the “judge” in a civil case and toss out some zingers as the details unfolded. During a commercial break, a real judge would coach the comedian on what to say in his verdict, and the comedian would then hand down some comic justice.

Executive producer Billett thought this was “a stupid idea,” but he agreed to make a pilot of the comedic show provided he could also produce a more serious pilot. In the end, though, he only taped the serious pilot starring Wapner.

2. His “Courtroom” Wasn’t Actually a Courtroom

Judge Wapner was a real judge; before making the leap to TV he had retired after serving on the bench of the Los Angeles County Superior Court for 18 years. His “courtroom” on the show wasn’t an actual courtroom, though. Instead, Wapner was an arbitrator who happened to work on a set that looked like a small claims court.

While Wapner’s arbitration decisions were binding, even losing parties didn’t leave the show empty-handed. It’s tough to pin down exactly what the payout for appearing on The People’s Court was, but available reports make it sound like losing defendants received a small appearance fee and had the show pay any damages awarded to the plaintiff. If a defendant successfully avoided a losing judgment, the plaintiff and defendant got to split $500.

3. He Had One Very Famous Date

When Wapner was a student at Hollywood High School during the 1930s, he spotted a fellow student who happened to be “the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.” A friend introduced the young beauty to the future judge, and he asked her out on a date. The girl introduced herself as Judy Turner, but the world remembers her better as movie bombshell Lana Turner.

Unfortunately for Wapner, the romance got off to a rocky start. He asked Turner to join him for a Coke at a neighborhood drugstore, only to realize that he didn’t have any money in his pockets. Turner ended up footing the bill. After that debacle, Wapner’s chances weren’t so good, but he did manage to get one more date. He later told The New Yorker, “The following Saturday, we double-dated at a dance.  That was the beginning, middle, and end of our acquaintance.  She dropped me.”

4. He Settled the Momentous Case of Letterman v. Carson

Wapner appeared on The Tonight Show several times over the course of his career, including this memorable episode in which he acted as an arbitrator during a dispute between host Johnny Carson and a young David Letterman. Take a look:

5. He Was a War Hero

The People’s Court may have been a silly little bit of entertainment, but Wapner was a serious soldier. He served in the Army during World War II and rose to the rank of first lieutenant. Wapner received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his risking his own hide to pull a wounded buddy out of heavy machine-gun fire.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]