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Whatever Happened to Lassie (and 8 Other Showbiz Dogs)?

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Good news, dog lovers and Potterheads: the dog that played Sirius Black’s animal form in the HP movies is up for adoption. The German Shepherd’s owner is a stuntman who feels he’s traveling too much to take proper care of the dog, whose name is actually Shadowberry, not Padfoot. I’m sure the 10-year-old Berry will have no problems finding an owner to take care of him in his twilight years, but what happened to some of the other famous dogs from movie history?

1. Lassie from seven Lassie films. The first animal actor to play the iconic collie was actually a male dog named Pal. Pal portrayed Lassie in Lassie Come Home, plus six other movies and two television pilots. Though the show was picked up, Pal was ready to retire after 11 years in the industry. His three-year-old son, Lassie Jr., stepped in to pick up the family business. From his retirement in 1954 to his death in 1958, Pal lived with his trainer, Rudd Weatherwax. Years later, Rudd’s son commented on how devastated his father was when his best friend died: "It hit him very hard when Pal died. He buried him in a special place on the ranch and would often visit the grave. Dad would never again watch an MGM Lassie movie. He just couldn't bear to see Pal. He didn't want to have to be reminded of just how much he loved that dog."

2. Brandon from Punky Brewster. As I mentioned last week, Punky’s buddy Brandon was named after then-NBC president Brandon Tartikoff – onscreen, at least. The golden retriever’s real name was Sandy. After Punky, Sandy went on to star in The Watchers with Corey Haim. He was later adopted by a family that just happened to have a little boy who grew up to be a cameraman for TMZ, the Hollywood gossip show. He mentioned it to Soleil Moon Frye, the star of the show, when he ran into her at a book signing. Check it out.

3. Benji from Benji. The dog behind Benji, Higgins, was one busy actor.

Not only did he play Benji at the ripe old age of 14, prior to that he was “Dog” on Petticoat Junction for six seasons. He also had cameos on Green Acres and the Beverly Hillbillies. Like Pal and Rudd Weatherwax, Higgins and his trainer were unbelievably close. Trainer Frank Inn found the little mutt at an animal shelter when he was just a puppy and developed such an attachment to him that he wrote two poems in his honor. When Higgins died in 1975, Inn had him cremated and kept him in an urn on the mantel. Upon Inn’s own death in 2002, his family placed Higgins’ ashes in the coffin, at Inn’s request.

4. Asta from The Thin Man. Skippy the Wire-Haired Fox Terrier had a better movie career than some actors – he starred in dozens of movies in less than 10 years. His owner was Gale Henry East, an actress who opened a dog training facility once her onscreen days were over.

5. Old Yeller from Old Yeller. I'm sure we're all glad that Spike the Lab/Mastiff mix didn't meet the same fate as his onscreen counterpart. (Go ahead, grab some tissues. I'll wait.) Spike was also part of the Weatherwax family of dogs. At first, Disney Studios wasn't sure the part was right for Spike since the script called for the dog to get pretty vicious. Spike had grown up around kids and didn't have a mean bone in his body, so it was hard for studio execs to see his mean side. They relented, however, and Spike won the part - and our hearts. He went on to star in A Dog Named Flanders with David Ladd; he also appeared in three episodes of a Western TV show called 26 Men. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find much about his whereabouts upon retirement - presumably he went home to live with the Weatherwaxes - but some sources say Spike was buried at sea when he did pass away.

6. Eddie from Frasier. Ask any animal lover and they’ll tell you Kelsey Grammer wasn’t the real star of that show - Moose the dog was. He received more fan mail than any of the other actors. When the show became popular and it was apparent that there would be many more seasons to come, Moose was bred in case a replacement was needed. One of his puppies was given to Peri Gilpin, who played Roz on the show. Another one, Enzo, eventually succeeded his dad. Enzo also played the title role in My Dog Skip, with Moose doing a few scenes as the older version of Skip. Moose spent nearly seven years in retirement with his trainers before he died in 2006; he also enjoyed the company of Enzo and Jill, the dog who played Verdell in As Good as It Gets. Not a bad life. Enzo passed away last year at the age of 16.

7. Rin Tin Tin. There were many Rin Tin Tins over the years, but let's talk about the dog that originated the role. The German Shepherd was found by an American serviceman in Lorraine, France, and named the dog Rin tin tin after a French puppet. Owner Lee Duncan was convinced the smart dog would be perfect for a film career - and obviously, he was correct. He was a huge silent film star; supposedly he even won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor until judges insisted on giving the statuette to a human (I'm sure Emil Jannings thanks them). He died in 1932, just shy of his 14th birthday. According to Hollywood legend, Jean Harlow lived across the street and came over to comfort the dog in his final hours, even holding his head in her lap as he died. Rinty's owner, Lee Duncan, had given her one of Rin Tin Tin's puppies years before.

8. Toto from The Wizard of Oz. Though Toto was Terry the dog’s most famous role, it definitely wasn’t her only role. In fact, her first major movie was in Bright Eyes with Shirley Temple, the biggest star of the day. It was during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, however, that Terry was badly injured when an actor playing one of the Winkie guards stepped on her foot, breaking it. Judy Garland insisted on letting Terry stay at her house while she recovered and developed such an attachment that she asked to adopt Terry. Terry’s trainer, Carl Spitz, said no – she had more work to do. Terry died in 1945, still under the Spitz’ care. He buried her at his ranch in Studio City, California, but when the Ventura Freeway was constructed in 1958, the whole area was dug up, including Terry’s remains. Earlier this year, a life size monument was dedicated to Terry at Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles.

9. Petey from Our Gang. Pete the Pup is kind of a sad tale. The original pit bull who played the part, Pal the Wonder Dog, had that distinctive ring around his eye naturally – almost. The near-circle was completed with a little help from the makeup crew. Sadly, it’s said that someone with an unknown motive poisoned Pal in 1930. After that, Pal’s son, Pete, was one of the main animal actors to take over for his dad, even though he had to have his eye circle painted on by famous makeup artist Max Factor. After leaving Our Gang, Pete the Pup moved to Atlantic City, where he took pictures with his fans on Steel Pier. He died of old age in 1946.

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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]