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The Life And Times Of The MGM Lion

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The famous mascot of Metro-Goldwyn Mayer is not one lion, but five lions. These are their stories.

Slats (1917–1928)

Wikimedia Commons

Slats, born at the Dublin Zoo, was MGM's first lion. He had previously appeared in the logo of the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, where designer Howard Dietz chose the lion as a mascot as a tribute to his alma mater Columbia University and its athletic teams, the Lions. Slats was trained by Volney Phifer, Hollywood’s premier animal trainer, and the pair toured the country to promote MGM’s launch. The two became close, and when Slats died in 1936, Phifer had the body sent to his farm and buried it there, marking the grave with a granite slab and a pine tree to “hold down the lion’s spirit.”

Jackie (1928-1956)


Jackie, aka "Leo," in a Ryan Brougham airplane modified to take him on a transcontinental flight in 1927. Photo Courtesy of San Diego Air & Space Museum Flickr Stream

Jackie was the first MGM lion to make his voice heard, thanks to the gramophone. He introduced MGM's first sound production, White Shadows in the South Seas, with a roar. The lion came from something of an acting animal dynasty. His mother, Stubby, was part of a performance troupe, and his grandmother, Mamie, was one of the first animals to ever appear on film in the U.S. Jackie's own resume went beyond roaring in a studio logo—he also appeared in 100+ movies.

Jackie had another claim to fame. He survived two train wrecks, an earthquake, a boat sinking, an explosion at the studio, and a plane crash that left him stranded in the Arizona wilderness for several days (pilot Martin Jenson left the cat with some snacks while he went in search of help). After all that, he earned the nickname "Leo the Lucky."


Jackie, rescued after the plane crash. Photo Courtesy of San Diego Air & Space Museum Flickr Stream

Jackie wasn't much of a looker, apparently, and trainer Melvin Koontz called him "the ugliest cat you had ever seen." He did get along well with other felines, though. One night, an alley cat and her kittens crawled into Jackie's cage for shelter, and when Koontz found them later, the kittens were dripping wet from Jackie licking them clean.

In 1931, Jackie retired from the studio and went to live at the Philadelphia Zoo. He died in February 1935 after battling a heart problem for several months. Through a chain of events isn't quite clear (and may even be more myth than fact), Jackie's body wound up in the hands of a Los Angeles taxidermist, who preserved his skin and then sold it to McPherson Museum in McPherson, Kansas.

Tanner (1934–1956) and George (1956–1958)

Not much is known about either of these guys. Tanner reigned through the "Golden Age Of Hollywood” and was described as MGM's “angriest” lion by Koontz because he snarled all the time. George apparently didn't make much of an impression on anyone—one of the only things you can find about him in the history books is that he had a bigger mane than the other lions.

Leo (1957-present)

Leo is MGM's longest-serving lion and was also the youngest at the time his roar was filmed. In addition to his appearance in the logo, he appeared in several Tarzan movies, the Tarzan television adaptation, and other films. Leo may or may not have been the lion's actual name, but after he was purchased from animal dealer Henry Treffich, the name was used by someone at the studio and stuck both there and in the public consciousness.

Other "Lions"

The lions have occasionally been spoofed at the beginnings of films, with replacements including the Marx Brothers, a lion with blood-dripping fangs in The Fearless Vampire Killers, a croaking frog, Mimsie the Cat the in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, a meowing Tom in Tom and Jerry, Animal in The Great Muppet Caper and a drunk lion, plus Bob and Doug McKenzie, in Strange Brew.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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