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11 Celebrities Posing with mental_floss

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Dateline: Novi, Michigan – Motor City Comic Con 2012. Your intrepid reporter and her ever-patient husband/photographer brave the hordes of Darth Vaders, Dudley Do-Rights, and Daryl Dixons to bring you 11 celebrities posing with mental_floss:

1. Sean Patrick Flanery

With a name like Sean Patrick Flanery, one would presume that that Irish brogue used by The Boondock Saints' Connor McManus came naturally. But one would be wrong. The actor grew up in Houston, Texas, and it proved as tough for Flanery to adopt a Celtic lilt as it did for him to overcome his Texas twang. Flanery’s tough guy persona is bona fide; he has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, as well as one in karate. As you can see here, he even took an attack pose when we handed him an issue of mental_floss.Kind of hard to picture him as the sensitive (and hairless) Jeremy Reed in the film Powder, no? Sean loves to hear from fans, so check out his website at or tweet him (@seanflanery).

2. Loni Anderson

When Loni was born in 1946, her father wanted to christen her with the Hawaiian-sounding name Leiloni. Further consideration made him realize that a name pronounced "Lay Loni" might be unsuitable later in life, so he and her mother shortened it to Loni. Anderson first gained fame as the sexy but smart receptionist Jennifer Marlowe on WKRP in Cincinnati. She also starred in the made-for-TV movie ratings-grabber The Jayne Mansfield Story. In 1984, she co-starred with Lynda Carter as a pair (no pun intended) of private investigators in the TV series Partners in Crime. Anderson’s résumé  is filled with later TV and movie appearances, but for some reason, the mention of Loni Anderson and Lynda Carter together caused my photographer (my husband, Sandy) to twitch uncontrollably and loll his tongue out of his mouth à la Homer Simpson. I had to cut short our interview for a quick trip to the hydration booth.

3. Bill Mumy (and friend)

By the time seven-year-old “Billy” Mumy played young Anthony Fremont - who sent mean people to the corn field - on the “It’s a Good Life” episode of the original Twilight Zone, he already had some two dozen TV appearances under his tiny belt. Of course, Mumy went on to appear as a regular on Lost in Space and Babylon 5, and had roles in many films, but he’s also kept busy all these years as a musician, writer, producer, and voiceover artist. He’s one-half of novelty duo Barnes & Barnes (remember “Fish Heads”?) but has also written several mainstream musical scores for dozens of TV shows, from the soap Santa Barbara to several Animal Planet series. Find out more about the Marvel Comics he’s written, his current band The Jenerators, his twice-weekly Real Good Radio Hour, and much more at

4. Valerie Perrine

Perrine earned a special place in television history by being the first female to appear nude on prime-time network TV. True, the network was PBS, and many affiliates refused to air the 1973 playlet Steambath, which also starred Bill Bixby and Herb Edelman. One year later, Valerie co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning Lenny, a biopic about controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. At the other end of the spectrum, Perrine was nominated for a Razzie Award in the ill-fated disco musical Can’t Stop the Music, which has since become a Xanadu-esque cult favorite. In person, it’s clear that Valerie Perrine and Dawn Wells have been sharing anti-aging tips. She's as lovely as ever, and it was truly a pleasure to meet her.  You can see her entire TV/filmography, her Playboy cover, and more at

5. Butch Patrick

Butch Patrick is bemused by reviews of the recent Dark Shadows feature-film remake that liken Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Barnabus Collins to that of the original Eddie Munster. Because, as any The Munsters fan knows, Eddie was a werewolf; Collins is a vampire. Nevertheless, it’s a tribute to Patrick's characterization that little Edward Wolfgang Munster is still vividly remembered, even 46 years after the show ceased production. Patrick’s website is the official source of Munsters behind-the-scene stories, memorabilia, and other titillating tidbits about TV’s First Family of Fright.

6. Christopher Knight

As middle brother Peter on The Brady Bunch, Christopher Knight generated more fan mail than even hunky older brother Barry Williams. To his credit, Knight found a way to combine his innate charisma with his keen interest in science and mechanics. Since 1988, he's worked with several hi-tech companies as a software engineer and account manager, racking up his share of multi-million dollar accounts along the way. He has dabbled in the occasional reality television series, but not enough to interest him in maintaining a personal website. He humbly states that he’s “not really into” promoting himself, but after talking to him for just 10 minutes, it's easy to see why he’s tops as a sales professional – we’d certainly buy a used car from him!

7. Dawn Wells

The lovely former Miss Nevada could win a Nobel prize tomorrow, and without a doubt, the newspaper headlines would say: "Mary Ann wins Nobel." But Dawn Wells is fine being identified with her Gilligan’s Island character. In fact, she embraces it, which is probably why she looks more beautiful at 74 than most women 20 years her junior. While dabbling in regional theater over the years, Wells has also undertaken a number of charitable pursuits, including the Terry Lee Wells Foundation and Discovery Museum that honors her late cousin ( Long after Gilligan's Island was off the air, Dawn didn't hesitate to lend a hand when aging castmate Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell) needed care. Her efforts even inspired her to design a clothing line for seniors that was just as functional - but far more attractive - than the traditional hospital gown.

A personal note: at the time we chatted with Dawn, her booth had the longest line of any celebrity at the convention, and a number of those waiting were in wheelchairs and could not speak other than guttural utterances in either the affirmative or negative. Each one of those fans, though, had seen enough Gilligan’s Island episodes to know what they liked and picked out a specific 8 x 10 photo from the available choices. Dawn Wells not only took the time to personally autograph the pictures, but also came out from behind her table to speak with all of them and give them a smile and a hug. Visit her official site at

8. Deep Roy

“Deep Roy” may sound like a deliberate attempt at a catchy stage moniker, but it’s actually just a variation on the Kenyan-born Indian actor's real name: Gurdeep Roy. Acting opportunities are often limited for Little People, but Deep Roy has been working consistently since 1976, when he made his big screen debut in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. You may remember him from Big Fish, and more recently he played all the Oompa-Loompas in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Deep's complete filmography is far too exhaustive to mention here, so please take a moment to check out his official website at

9. Erin Gray

In 1971, an advertising executive at New York’s McCann-Erickson Agency came up with a tag line to promote a pricey line of L’Oreal hair dye: “Because I’m worth it.” The woman chosen to first utter that famous line on a TV commercial was a pretty, up-and-coming model named Erin Gray. Hollywood beckoned, and Gray enthralled millions of viewers with her portrayal of Colonel Wilma, the beauty with brains on TV’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. She went on to portray the beautiful-yet-wholesome girlfriend-turned-wife of the father on Silver Spoons, but on the set, her young stepson on the show had decidedly unwholesome feelings for her. Rick Schroder confessed in a 2011 interview that, as a typical teenage boy, he found it "cruel" that Erin liked to perform yoga stretches during filming breaks! Erin has been working steadily in TV, theater, and films over the years – you can find detailed information at

10. Peter Tork

Just like the false story that Charles Manson auditioned to become a member of The Monkees, it was untrue that none of the four chosen men had musical experience. Both Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork had worked as professional musicians prior to landing roles on the TV series. No less a master than Jimi Hendrix - who opened for The Monkees on a U.S. tour - proclaimed that Peter Tork was “the most talented Monkee” after jamming with him on several occasions. Adept at many musical instruments, including guitar, bass, keyboard, banjo, and french horn, Tork earned a living playing backup for John Phillips, Steven Stills, Van Dyke Parks, and Arthur Lee at shows in New York’s Greenwich Village. Peter has continued to dabble in acting over the years, but his true love is music, specifically the blues. Since the 1990s, his band Shoe Suede Blues has provided him with a creative outlet. Find out more about Peter’s past and present at

11. Yvonne Craig

Instead of allowing us kids to watch Batman on the color, living-room TV, dad banished us to the tiny, old black-and-white set in the basement. That changed with the show's third season, when Yvonne Craig joined the cast as Batgirl. Go figure, there was something about her figure-hugging costume and high kicks (delivered with stiletto boots) that seemed to appeal to him. As we learned during our time with her, Yvonne started out as a ballerina, which confirms my dad’s oft-mentioned remark, with tongue lolling out à la Sandy above, that “with legs like that, she must be a dancer!” Craig still draws attention with her beauty and her acting ability, and if you want to catch up with her, or just gawk at photos of her in that sparkly catsuit, head over to


All of the above celebrities were kind enough to chat with us and pose with a magazine, and almost every one of them flipped through the issue and asked questions. (We left the copies with them, of course.) A few of them - we won't mention names - took the time to reach underneath the table and pull out reading glasses to peruse it closely. A couple started peppering us with trivia questions to challenge us. Both Peter Tork and Bill Mumy’s assistants asked us for an extra copy because “they’d never get to see it” nodding toward said celebs who actually sat down and started seriously reading, temporarily ignoring the fans in line. We ask you to not only share your memories of these celebs (Childhood crush? He/she scared you on a TV show? etc.) but also to take a moment to click on their websites and tell ‘em that you appreciate their work (and that mental_floss sent you!).

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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]