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Chris Latta, voice of Starscream and Cobra Commander

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Children of the 1980s know few voices better than that of Chris Latta, who played the roles of both Starscream and Cobra Commander. (That’s like ninety percent of a Reagan-era childhood right there.) Latta, who was sometimes credited as Christopher Collins, was a voice, stage, and screen actor who died in 1994. Here are a few things you might not have known about him.

He knew both ends of the social strata in Springfield.

In the third episode of The Simpsons, Homer is fired from the nuclear power plant and becomes a social crusader. After successfully petitioning for a stop sign and, later, speed bumps, he takes on the plant. It’s here that we first meet Mr. Burns, the plant’s devious billionaire owner. To mollify the people of Springfield, Mr. Burns offers Homer a new job as plant safety inspector. Excellent.

Chris Latta was the first voice of Mr. Burns. Notably, he was also the first voice of Moe Syzlak, the local bartender. (Yes, he of the Flaming Moe!) Latta’s voice track for Moe was later swapped for that of Hank Azaria, though his work in that episode as host of America's Most Armed and Dangerous remains for all posterity.

Latta left the show early on to pursue his standup career.

He was a standup comic.

Latta began a career in standup comedy in Boston in the 1970s. He was a better standup comic than he was a poker player. According to the Los Angeles Times, he once had to play the same club in Boston for eight months to pay off a gambling debt. He said of comedy, "If you're an engineer and you've been a good engineer for a while, people don't say, 'Well, prove to us you're an engineer,' Comedy means starting from zero every time. The audience sits sedately and hopes to be amazed... Every time I go up on stage I find out if I'm funny again."

In 1990, he won the San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition.

He’s in the Transformers hall of fame.

You already know that on the cartoon The Transformers, he was the iconic voice of Starscream, the malevolent and duplicitous Decepticon lieutenant. You might not know that he was also the voice of Wheeljack and Sparkplug (Spike’s dad). In 2012, Hasbro inducted him posthumously into the Transformers Hall of Fame, which is an actual thing.

(In a bit of bonus trivia, Latta voiced an arms dealer named Old Snake in an episode of The Transformers that took place in the year 2006. It’s hinted that Old Snake, whose face is concealed throughout the episode, once led a massive terrorist organization. At the show’s end, Old Snake eludes capture and muses of his defeated, arrested client, “They simply don't make terrorists like they used to.” He then attempts a rally cry of “Cobra!” but breaks into a coughing fit.)

He was Cobra Commander. Really.

While Starscream never quite took leadership of the Decepticons (but for a few minutes during a coronation ceremony), Chris Latta did lead an evil army into battle. On the cartoon G.I. Joe, he voiced Cobra Commander, leader of Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

This identity once spilled over into real life. (Well, realer life—am I right, Joe fans?) Latta said in an interview that he was called into the office of his son’s school guidance counselor. The school official was alarmed that Latta’s son kept saying that his father was Cobra Commander. “Well?” asked the counselor. “Doesn't that concern you?”

“But I am,” replied Chris Latta.

He was once a Klingon. Qa’plaH!

In an episode of Seinfeld, Latta played the role of a thug on the New York subway. In a bit of a meatier role, he played a homeless man on Mr. Belvedere. (Yes, Mr. Belvedere, who is definitely dead.) He was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he played a Klingon starship captain. Latta was also on the superior Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (Save your hate mail, Picardophiles.) For those keeping track, this means there is a direct link between Transformers, The Simpsons, G.I. Joe, Seinfeld, Star Trek, and Mr. Belvedere. It’s a miracle that the universe hasn’t divided by zero.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]