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5 Things You Didn't Know About Orson Welles

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You know Orson Welles was one of the most revered actors and directors of the 20th century, but how much do you know about his sketchy big break or his deft efforts to make rabbits disappear? Let’s take a look at five surprising things about Welles.

1. He Knew How to Fib

Welles got his first acting gig before he turned 10; he received $25 a day to dress up as Peter Rabbit and stand in the window at Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store. His real breakthrough came when he was traveling through Europe when he was 16. While in Dublin, Welles showed up at the Gate Theatre one night and proudly proclaimed that he was a big Theatre Guild star from New York.

Welles wasn’t a real star of the stage, but he was convincing enough as an actor to get the theater to fall for his lie. Thanks to his fabricated resume he landed a lead role right off the bat and spent the entire season acting in Dublin’s biggest theaters. By the time he left Ireland, he had real acting experience.

2. William Randolph Hearst Wasn’t a Fan

It’s no secret that Welles’ signature film, Citizen Kane, was loosely based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and the portrayal isn’t what anyone would call flattering.

Hearst allegedly trying to block showings of the film, and Hearst newspapers refused to advertise, review, or otherwise mention Citizen Kane.

The Hearts papers were under similar orders not to speak of Welles, but a 1941 New Yorker piece explained there were exceptions to that rule. “[T]he Hearst press is under strict orders to ignore Welles, except for a series of articles pointing out that he is a menace to American motherhood, freedom of speech and assembly, and the pursuit of happiness; otherwise, no mention of that hated name, even in listings of radio programs or dramatic news from New York.”

Hearst and company supposedly offered RKO Pictures, the studio that released the film, a payment that would cover all of the production costs plus a modest profit if the studio would cancel the release and destroy all prints of the film. RKO refused the deal, a decision that paved the way for Citizen Kane to be considered one of the best films of all time.

3. He Could Saw Movie Stars in Half

When his flat feet rendered him unfit for service in World War II, he decided to chip in by cheering the troops up. With magic. He traveled around the European front performing shows in which he sawed movie star Marlene Dietrich in half.

Welles later took his show home to Los Angeles, where his movie-star wife, Rita Hayworth, took Dietrich’s place in the box. He continued performing magic throughout his life, and some confidantes said that the actor actually loved magic more than acting or directing.

YouTube contains a treasure trove of clips involving Welles and magic, but it’s hard to beat this one:

4. He Could Really Do a Voiceover

When Welles’ weight ballooned as he aged, his rotund physique began to limit the sort of roles he could play. He still had his inimitable voice even after he let his waistline go, though, so Welles found all sorts of interesting voiceover parts. He provided the off-screen voice for Robin Masters, Tom Selleck’s never-seen host in the first few seasons of Magnum, P.I. He voiced Unicron in the 1986 animated film Transformers: The Movie, leading to this unbelievable quote:

“I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.”

Best of all, he narrated the trailer for Revenge of the Nerds. Have a listen to Charles Foster Kane’s voice describing the downfalls of being a nerd:

Welles also took a slew of commercial endorsement work. He once referred to these appearances as “the most innocent form of whoring I know,” and he took that philosophy to ads for everything from Shredded Wheat to Perrier to Jim Beam. Fans of Lost in Translation will particularly enjoy this whiskey commercial Welles shot for the Japanese market:

5. He Left Behind a Lot of Unfinished Projects

When Welles died in 1985, he had a slew of tantalizing unfinished projects still kicking around. He had periodically worked on a film adaptation of Don Quixote for 15 years during the 1950s and 60s, but funding shortfalls plagued the project. Although Welles apparently finished shooting the film, the final draft never saw the light of day.

That wasn’t Welles’ only big loss. In 1969 and 1970 he had directed a film version of The Merchant of Venice featuring himself as Shylock. Although that film was completed, someone stole several reels of the final negative from his office in Rome. The world never got to see this version of Welles as Shylock, but years later the actor, dressed in a trench coat and standing in an empty field, recorded a version of the money lender’s famous monologue.

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...' leave us a comment!

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]