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Interview with Trace Beaulieu of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic

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A two-part exclusive interview with Trace Beaulieu, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and now with Cinematic Titanic

Crow T. Robot enjoying the latest issue of mental_floss magazine

Many of you have experienced Trace Beaulieu's work as an actor on Freaks & Geeks and as a writer for America's Funniest Home Videos, but most will remember him as mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and the wisecracking Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000. You probably haven't heard about his other real-life roles: Trace the artist, Trace the ice show roustabout, Trace the chicken farmer, or Trace the child who refuses to grow up.

Beaulieu currently tours with several other original MST3K stars and writers under the moniker Cinematic Titanic. The crew is still riffing on movies, the older and the cheesier the better, and they're doing it live. mental_floss research editor Kara Kovalchik interviewed Trace a few days ago to talk about the troupe's upcoming shows in Detroit and Durham, NC (where the _floss was founded), the origins of MST3K, and how he earned the label of "Renaissance Man."

Kara Kovalchik: You did some kind of presentation in L.A. on [February] the 16th. Could you tell us about it?

Trace Beaulieu: That was [with] Dana Gould, who's a stand-up comic and writer. We've known him for years and years. He has been a huge fan of the movie Plan 9 from Outer Space, and has a very personal relationship with that film, and actually was a very good friend of Maila Nurmi, who portrayed Vampira. And so he asked Frank and Josh and I to come out and riff on that with him last night at Meltdown Comics.

KK: Was it scripted like Cinematic Titanic, or off-the-cuff?

TB: Frank and I joined Dana in Seattle a few months ago, and we did this same film. We kinda walked through it once. It was pretty free-wheeling and impromptu, very much different than CT. You know, it's really going back to the roots of Mystery Science Theater, too, because that was all improv'ed at KTMA when we first started out. It's kinda come full circle.

KK: You're kind of the "Renaissance man" of the CT crew. You used to do stand-up, you were part of an ice show, you helped build the sets for MST, you've written for America's Funniest Home Videos, you appeared on Freaks & Geeks...
At left, Beaulieu on TV's Freaks and Geeks

TB: I think I get pinned with the "Renaissance man" title because that's the type of clothing I prefer to wear. It's a little embarrassing for the others, but, tights and couplets and...

KK: And the codpiece, too.

TB: Absolutely! (laughs) That's what makes the man.

KK: Do you have a favorite amongst those jobs? What did you want to be when you grew up?

TB: No, I don't think I've ever really decided what I want to be. And I don't think I've grown up. So it's still a journey. I like a blend, and that's why I loved MST so much, because I got to do all of that stuff. It's all challenging; it's all problem-solving. I like that aspect of whatever project I'm working on.

As we'll learn later in the interview, Trace spent a lot of of his youth creating things, but he also managed to find time to plant himself in front of the television and absorb the pop-culture fodder that he'd later use in MST3K and Cinematic Titanic.

KK: Back when you were doing MST, many of the references were so esoteric, they could only come from someone who'd spent far too much time watching TV (like I did). Did you ever get outdoors as a child?

TB: It didn't take as much time to watch television when we were kids, because there were only three networks. And television ended – it wasn't a continuing 24-hour thing. It was refreshing, actually. "It's over. I can't stay up any later. Thank God!"

KK: But your parents were okay with it?

TB: I would find myself watching stupid shows like Batman or Time Tunnel, and would turn the channel over to the news when my folks came in the room 'cause I didn't want them to see the crap that I was watching.

KK: But when you parlayed that into making a living, your dad encouraged your career.

TB: Very much so. Even more than I would encourage it.

A perfect storm came together to spark life into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Creator and inventor Joel Hodgson worked with Trace to develop the show's sets in a way that gave them freedom to focus on the show's content. While the robots attracted and the bad movies repelled, the jokes kept the audience coming back week after week. And the home of it all was a set Beaulieu helped build: the Satellite of Love.


Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy on set at MST3K

KK: Each episode of MST3K gave "special thanks" to Skyline Displays [a Minnesota-based manufacturer of trade show displays]. You and your brother were involved in that, right?

TB: Everybody in my family was involved [in Skyline] at one time or another. And we thanked them in the credits because they gave us access to this warehouse and office that Best Brains [the production company behind MST3K] was housed in. They let us be in there for a year or so without paying rent. It allowed us to have a studio that we could build out to our own specifications. Also, we could have standing sets. All these other places we looked at, like real television studios, wouldn't allow us to keep the sets up. So it was a real boost to what we did, and how the show was formed. It's little mentioned and I'm glad that you picked up on that. A great deal of credit is deserved in that direction, because it gave us a home.

KK: So your work there prepared you for building sets?

TB: We grew up making stuff. There's this "maker movement" now. Well, we were doing that as kids. We had a workshop, and access to tools, and there was never any question that ... if you want something, you make it. Or you can fix stuff, and we picked up the skills as we went along.

KK: For the first five or six seasons of the show, Joel and the Mad Scientists participated in a weekly "invention exchange." Did you Mads come up with your own, or was that all Joel?

TB: Those were all really left over from Joel's [stand-up comedy] act. When we ran out of stuff to steal from his act, either he came up with more of them, or we as a group discussed what we would do. And the invention exchanges became weirder and weirder; the Mad Scientists dressed as pirates... I think we even did a Billie Jean King thing.

KK: Oh, yes.

TB: We strayed a bit from the invention exchange. (laughs)

The focus of both MST3K and Cinematic Titanic is the art of "riffing," or interacting with a motion picture in a humorous but somewhat unobtrusive way. Unlike the action at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the comments are mostly made in between the dialogue and action.

KK: As mental_floss researchers, we have a hard time watching a TV show or movie without analyzing it for trivia or quiz use. Do you have the same trouble in those situations, always going over riffs in your head?

TB: I don't really watch with an eye towards harvesting something for CT. When looking for something to write, we're really working in a specific area. When I watch movies for just sheer entertainment, I can just get lost in just whether they're good or not.

KK: You've long expressed a fondness for monster movies. Do you still try to push those in Cinematic Titanic?

TB: We really look for a movie that has a plot that you can kinda follow, and spaces in the dialogue for us to insert what we need to do. And then all of those elements – bad acting, bad sets, bad production values. You should be able to see it. It should be lit at least reasonably well. You should be able to hear it, and it should have some coherency to it. Otherwise, you just go "What? I don't know where we are!" You're put down in a hedgerow maze.

KK: In the days of MST3K, the writers' room was where you watched movies and wrote the scripts and bounced material off one another. Do all of you still get together like that, or are you too spread out?

TB: I live in Minnesota. Josh and Frank live in L.A. Joel's in Pennsylvania, and Mary Jo's in Texas.

KK: So how does the procedure work?

TB: We each do a pass on the film on our own, and then all of that's combined into one big script, and then we tape sections of that and we go through and edit out the jokes that aren't particularly good for that moment of the film. When that pass is done, that goes to Josh, who'll do a final look-see joke pass on that, and then we'll all get it back again and make notations or corrections. And when we get together when we're going to perform it, we do a full rehearsal and rewrite session. And we're constantly working on it. As we go from town to town, we're making improvements, or finding things that work better.

KK: I would imagine that on MST3K, your jokes could be more esoteric because you had a much larger TV audience, whereas CT performs live in front of smaller crowds.

TB: Well, we want the immediate feedback, so we want the jokes to work and to land right away. But we still find ourselves thrilling in really obscure and really just-for-us jokes. In this one joke Josh and I were talking about last night, we make a reference to Pat Paulsen wine. [Deadpan 1960s comedian Paulsen tried his hand as a vintner in the early 1980s.] It just does not get a laugh at all. But in spite of the fact that it didn't get a laugh, he called it back later in the show, just to further prove that it wasn't funny.

KK: Isn't it weird that Josh is now known as J. Elvis, and your last name is the same as Priscilla's [Elvis Presley's ex-wife]?

TB: It's creepy. And I often dress as Lincoln.


The cast of Cinematic Titanic: (L-R) Joel Hodgson, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Frank Conniff.

In addition to his behind-the-scenes work on MST3K and his role as Dr. Clayton Forrester, Beaulieu was also the voice and puppeteer behind Crow T. Robot, he of bowling-pin beak and hockey-mask hair. Beaulieu's seven seasons in character were the most of any actor. (The role of Crow was taken over in Season 8 by Bill Corbett.)

KK: When you riff – now, or like you did as Crow – do you put on a "mask" of sorts that allows you to act and react in a different way?

TB: I think it's all an extension of my personality. Crow was more of the character, and I was able to get away with a lot more through that character, because robots can say anything.

KK: So you're not the life of the party like Crow?

TB: I'm probably quieter. Yeah.

KK: I've handled a life-size Crow puppet before, and it's a difficult thing to control. Joel designed the robot, but you helped fine-tune it, especially on the inside. How did you bring him to life?

TB: I had a little bit of experience puppeteering, just being around theater and making goofy props for friends and for myself, but nothing that formalized.

KK: Crow was pretty heavy, right?

TB: Yes, I had forearms like a major-league pitcher. We had the advantage, we could rest it on the table a little bit. It did get pretty heavy. It was like puppeteering a car jack.

KK: When Bill Corbett took over as Crow, he mentioned that for the first couple episodes, the robot looked like he'd had a stroke since he was still learning how to maneuver the eyes properly.

TB: I kind of figured out how to work it because, building the mechanism and having worked it for such a long time, I could figure out how it was supposed to operate. But I was gone long before Bill picked up the puppet. I think he did a fantastic job given the nature of that pile of plastic. It wasn't easy to operate when I was doing it. It was unwieldy.

Click here for Part 2 of Kara's interview with Trace Beaulieu, where he reveals his skills as an artist and children's poet, talks about his brother's amazing work with green housing, and what to expect at a Cinematic Titanic show.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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