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9 Famous People Who Started as Disney Park Characters

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A couple of years ago, I did a post on celebrities who got their first tastes of the entertainment biz by working at one of the Disney Parks, whether they did tricks at the Magic Shop (Steve Martin) or cracked wise as a Jungle Cruise skipper (John Lasseter). But which celebs might you actually spot next to your terrified little brother in your family photo album? Here are a few.
 
1. Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson kept pretty busy at Disney World in Orlando - he was Aladdin, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Prince Eric in the Little Mermaid show. I think I was in fourth grade when I visited what was then Disney-MGM Studios; I was super excited to see Donatello roaming the fake streets of New York. When I stood in front of him so my mom could snap a picture, he put his three-fingered hand on my shoulder and squeezed so hard I’m actually wincing a little in the picture. Was that you, Kevin Richardson? Not cool.

2. Check out young Michelle Pfeiffer. You can totally see her as Alice in Wonderland, can’t you? One of her first jobs in entertainment was portraying Disney’s version of the Lewis Carroll ingenue in the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland.


3. Kevin Costner met his first wife, Cindy, at work in the Anaheim park. Cindy was busy signing autographs and posing for pictures as Snow White while Kevin apparently told terrible jokes on the Jungle Cruise. You can tell he's been influenced by the cheesy script - when a reporter once asked him where he found the guts to ask Snow White for a date, he replied, “Easy - I was her Prince Charming.” Unlike Snow White and her Prince, however, Kevin and Cindy divorced in 1994.


4. A lot of people think it’s air conditioned inside of those big costumes, but Wayne Brady is here to tell you it’s not. “Inside that costume it was about 90,000 degrees,” he said. A 16-year-old Brady was playing Tigger in a parade at one of the Orlando parks when he passed out from the heat. “I should have paced myself. But I fell flat on my face. They carried me off with my recorded voice still going, ‘Ooh-hoo-hoo!”

5. Alyson Reed has kind of come full circle with Disney - she played Alice at Disneyland back in the late ‘70s, but these days she’s better known as Mrs. Darbus from the High School Musical movies. In between her Disney stints, she had a ton of parts in some pretty notable TV shows and also did some Broadway.

6. I don’t tend to remember Miss Americas, really, but for some reason I remember Leanza Cornett. I think it might be the distinctive name. Anyway, before Leanza wore the sash and tiara of Miss America in 1993, she was the first live-action actress to play Ariel from The Little Mermaid. She didn’t sign autographs in the park, though - she played Ariel in the Voyage of the Little Mermaid show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. What’s slightly odd is that the next Miss Florida also played Ariel in the same show after Leanza left. Is there a Mermaid Conspiracy?!

7. Remember Katherine Harris of the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida? Rumor has it that she played Snow White at Disney World when she was a teenager. The Washington Post actually called Disney for verification of this fascinating nugget of information, but they would only confirm that Harris was a “pageant hostess” at the park from 1973-1975. The Disney spokesperson then added, “We do not generally reveal costumed character identities."

8. British actor Kevin Sacre, probably best known for the British soap Hollyoaks, honed his acting skills playing Aladdin at Disneyland Paris in the late ‘90s. He should get together with Kevin Richardson and compare notes.

9. If the name Alexis Mateo doesn’t ring a bell, maybe that’s because you haven’t been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Alexis, the second runner up in season three, apparently worked for Disney as a character for five years, but wouldn’t reveal any more information than that. In fact, as of January 2011, Alexis was still a seasonal cast member there. Hmm. Any guesses? Here’s a picture.

Honorable mention: Writer Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux, The Magician’s Elephant) worked at Disney and really wanted to be a chipmunk. Alas, she said the maximum height to portray Chip or Dale was 4’10” and she was automatically disqualified.

I’ve also heard but haven’t been able to confirm that Geena Davis once played Goofy. She certainly has the height for it... anyone know if that’s an urban legend or the real deal?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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.

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