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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
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]

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