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Ricky Gervais/Twitter

The Muppets Return "Again!" to Theaters in 2014

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Ricky Gervais/Twitter

After the smash success of the The Muppets in 2011, a new Muppets film is in the works. Having saved their dusty theater in the 2011 film, the Muppets will team up with Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ray Liotta, and Ty Burrell to take their show on the road for The Muppets... Again! in 2014. And yes, Bret McKenzie is coming back to write bonza songs. The plot? Entertainment Weekly reports: "The Muppet repertory company [enjoys] a triumphant world tour, only to become tangled up with a criminal mastermind named Constantine, who is out to steal an enormous diamond—and who happens to be a dead ringer for Kermit."

Here's a roundup of the best coverage of the new movie we've seen so for.

It's a Frog Thing

The new movie entails capers across Europe. Entertainment Weekly interviewed Kermit the Frog. The best bit:

[EW:] And you’ve got some pretty great human co-stars again.

[Kermit:] Ricky Gervais is kind of like a Muppet, if you think about it. He fits right in. He’s about our size. I actually think when this film ends it’s going to be hard to get rid of him. He keeps following me back to my hotel in London, which is very strange, but we’re thrilled to have him. Then, of course, we have Tina Fey—and it’s hard to beat Tina. I know her because I was lucky enough to get asked to do a little spot on one of the last episodes of 30 Rock. She’s playing a feisty prison guard named Nadya, which should be fun. Then we have Ty Burrell, who’s playing a French Interpol agent. But personally, I’m not going to be going to France for the French scenes. It’s best if I don’t go there. It’s a frog thing.

No Jason Segel

Jason Segel co-wrote, produced, and starred in The Muppets in 2011, thus becoming the public face of the return of the Muppets to the big screen. But he's not involved in the next movie. Muppet Wiki reports:

In a March 2012 interview, Jason Segel (co-writer, producer, and star of The Muppets) said that he will not return for the sequel, stating: "I have handed off the Muppets to my writing partner [Nick Stoller] and to James Bobin. My goal was to bring the Muppets back and I feel like I accomplished that. I feel like they're in really good hands. But it was half a decade of my life, I just want a little breather, and I know that they're going to nail it."

In an April 13, 2012 article from Collider.com, Nick Stoller revealed that the film is planned to be a comedy caper, will introduce new Muppets characters, and that Disney is hoping for a Summer 2013 release [ed note: March 2014 is the new plan]. Stoller and James Bobin started writing the script on April 12, 2012; they wrote 13 pages after outlining the entire movie over the past weeks.

While Nick Stoller said the film could possibly have a cameo for Jason Segel, Segel later stated that he will not appear in the film.

But there's a bright spot here: Walter, the new Muppet (Segel's brother) from the 2011 film, will return. However, the film is focused heavily on Kermit, with Walter occupying more of an ensemble role.

Ricky Gervais Speaks

"How does it feel not being able to boss people around?" the interviewer asks. Gervais: "I still do."

Gervais also told Digital Spy (emphasis added): "Honestly, this is the first time when I've really gone 'I really can't believe my luck here'. I think people think I am blasé about doing all this stuff but this tops working with De Niro."

Never Before, Never Again

As we prepare for The Muppets...Again!, let's take a look back at this performance of "Never Before, Never Again" from The Muppet Show, featuring Christopher Reeve. Well, it was supposed to be that song until Miss Piggy changed things up at the last minute.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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