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12 Unexpected Subjects for Musicals

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Apparently, on Broadway and elsewhere, one can break out into song over any topic imaginable, no matter how odd. Here are a dozen real-life musicals covering such weird and improbable subjects as Jerry Springer, Hannibal Lecter, and public restrooms.

1. Octomom! The Musical (2009)

Photo courtesy Octomom! The Musical

Shamelessly satirical, this retelling of modern celebrity Nadya Suleman and her famed octuplets’ rise to fame debuted in Los Angeles. But was the real Suleman invited? “We have a whole row of seats—14 of them—reserved just for her,” said director Chris Voltaire. It's no longer playing, but you can see the whole show on YouTube.

2. Moby Dick (1992)

A musical adaptation of the classic novel? Not by a long shot. Instead, we get phallic puns. A handful of scantily-clad schoolgirls plan to rescue their struggling academy by staging the Herman Melville story in a local swimming pool. The title lends itself to plenty of unfortunate innuendos and this production left no double entendre unexplored.

3. Urinetown (2001)

Proof that a weird musical isn’t necessarily a bad one, Urinetown took home three Tony Awards. That’s quite impressive for a show about a city in which private toilets are outlawed and the citizenry is forced to utilize pay-toilets instead.

4. Ben Franklin in Paris (1964)

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Ben Franklin in Paris tracks the beloved founding father’s diplomatic efforts in Europe and includes such musical numbers as “I Invented Myself” and “God Bless the Human Elbow."

5. Charles Darwin: Live and in Concert (2001)

Think Benjamin Franklin’s an unorthodox subject for a musical? Try Charles Darwin. This one-man show features what star and lyricist Richard Milner (a singer/anthropologist) describes as “antiquarian rap.”

6. Carrie (1988)

Stephen King on Broadway? Based on the novel of the same name, Carrie herself is an awkward teenager with an abusive mother, telekinetic powers, and a violent menstruation phobia. Predictably, it didn’t fare well: The New Yorker even asked various playwrights if Carrie was “The Worst Musical of All Time.” Ouch! An Off-Broadway revival this year didn't fare much better.

7. Silence! The Musical (2005)

“Hello, Clarice!” This foul-mouthed off-Broadway farce bills itself as “the unauthorized parody of The Silence of the Lambs" and sports a biting sense of humor. Included are gratuitous violence, songs about nether-regions, and tap-dancing sheep.

8. Via Galactia (1972)

Via Galactia was intended to be a landmark in theatrical special effects and included UFOs and lasers with a plot set 1000 years in the future. Yet this strange show was the first Broadway production to lose over $1 million. In the words of one witness, “Via Galactica seemed plagued from the start. For a moment the show was to be called up, but when posted next to the Uris [the theater it debuted in] name on the marquee, it sent an unfortunate message.”

9. Hope! Das Obama Musical (2010)

It’s a German musical about the political rise of President Obama. Need I say more?

10. It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane… It’s Superman! (1966)

Spider-Man wasn’t the first superhero to get the Broadway treatment. That honor goes to the man of steel himself, Superman. The show was adapted into a TV special in 1975 and the clip above has to be seen to be believed (“Oh, Superman, you’re WONDERFUL!” “Yeah, I know.”)

11. Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003)

Despite the title, this show does include spoken dialogue. Unsurprisingly, however, it does not include any semblance of class. Even less startling was the inevitable controversy this musical caused when BBC opted to air a staging of it in 2005 (The Daily Mail newspaper counted “8,000 cases of swearing”).

12. Triassic Parq (2012)

A phony Morgan Freeman narrates the dramatic story of a Tyrannosaur sex-change. I am not kidding one bit about this. This parody of Jurassic Park is told from the perspective of some genetically-revived dinos dwelling on a tropical island who hail the local laboratory as their deity. Live actors in colorful clothing bring these singing saurians to life.

For 12-12-12, we’ll be posting twenty-four '12 lists' throughout the day. Check back 12 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.


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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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