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7 Discontinued Oscar Categories

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Oscar season is upon us, and just about every casual moviegoer and professional film critic has formed opinions on the various competitors in the race to the golden statuette. As always, the fiercest contention is for Best Picture, the self-explanatory award for the greatest overall achievement in the motion picture industry this year. Other awards of equal prestige but less popular interest include those for Best Documentary Short, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and Best Sound Mixing—Oscars that rarely incite such impassioned debate over the most deserving winner.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the professional organizing body of the ceremony intended to honor the highest achievers in the field of filmmaking, recognizes that standards of achievement in the film industry evolve over time. The awards issued each year have reflected the ever-changing nature of the movie business—today’s Best Visual Effects may well give way to tomorrow’s Best Use of 3D Technology. Recognition is currently meted out to winners in 24 categories, but that number isn’t set in stone, as categories have been added and discontinued over the years. In the lead-up to this year’s 85th Academy Awards ceremony, we’re exploring some past categories that didn’t make the cut.

1. Academy Juvenile Award

In its heyday, the Academy Juvenile Award was given only sporadically to performers under 18 for particularly impressive dramatic feats. As a Special Honorary Academy Award, the Juvenile Award was under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Academy’s Board of Governors, who would periodically issue an Honorary Award to recognize “outstanding contributions to screen entertainment” not otherwise validated by existing award categories—for example, by child actors whose talent was worthy of merit, but whom voters had trouble pitting against their more worldly adult counterparts amid the cutthroat competition of the Best Actor/Actress categories.

At the 4th Academy Awards in 1931, 9-year-old Jackie Cooper won the impressive honor of being the first child nominated to the Best Actor category, as well as the more unfortunate distinction of being the first child to lose the Best Actor category. In the absence of even a Best Supporting Actor category at the time, the Academy saw fit to provide special dispensation to the industry’s wide-eyed youths. Three years later, Shirley Temple took home the first “Oscarette” at age 6, and to this day remains the youngest honoree ever to wield an Oscar of her own. Twelve performers received the same honor intermittently over the next 25 years, among them Judy Garland for her 1939 work in both The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms. Appropriately, the half-size statuettes which the winners held stood only seven inches tall.

During this time, the Academy established its Best Supporting Actor/Actress category, for which juveniles from 11-year-old Brandon deWilde to 17-year-old Sal Mineo were nominated and lost. When 16-year-old Patty Duke finally ousted her older competition to win the 1963 Best Supporting Actress award, the Academy dropped the Juvenile Award category and considered child actors on equal footing with adults. This year, 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis sets a record as the youngest nominee in the Best Actress category for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild. To be nominated, however, is not to win, and no one under the age of 21 has yet won a Best Actor/Actress Oscar for a leading role.

2. Best Title Writing

Some discontinued Oscar categories are obvious relics of the past. The award for Best Title Writing in particular recalls the silent film era, which was just coming to an end as the first Academy Awards ceremony debuted in 1928. One of three contenders for the Best Title Writing title, founding Academy member Joseph Farnham won the category not on behalf of any particular film, but as an individual whose overall career his peers chose to recognize with the first and only award for title writing. As talkies rapidly rendered the intertitle screens explaining the film’s action obsolete, so too did this category lose its relevance in the blink of an eye.

3. Best Dance Direction

Oh, those Gene Kelly days… Once upon a time, when black-and-white movies predominantly featured light-footed stars in tuxes and leading ladies in sequins and tap shoes, it made perfect sense to honor the choreographers in charge of coordinating all the twirling and whirling, as well as translating the live action artistry to a two-dimensional screen. The category remained a popular one for its short-lived stint from 1935 to 1937, with seven nominees vying for the title each year. However, resentment from the Directors Guild of America over the semantics of “direction,” a term they felt should only be applied to the overall guidance provided by the film’s Director with a capital D, effectively squashed the Academy’s love for the choreographers among them.

4. Best Assistant Director

Unlike other, now defunct Academy Awards, the category of Best Assistant Director has a number of fans clamoring for its return. In the first year of its awarding, the Best Assistant Director Oscar went to no fewer than seven winners from seven different studios, acknowledging the diverse and necessary division of labor within a filmmaking team, much of which went to the assistant director uncredited. As the awards became more about competition and less about any sense of congeniality among film professionals, assistant directors continued to do the dirty work, but lost the opportunity to stand up onstage to be recognized for it.

The position of assistant director, in recent years, certainly hasn’t been phased out; in fact, as the scale of movie production increases exponentially, the thankless work of an assistant director—preparing call sheets, maintaining orderly working conditions on set, and ensuring that filming progresses along its expected timeline—is often subdivided into first, second, and third assistant directors, if not more. Their roles embody the idea of “hard work, but somebody’s got to do it”; however, the absence of discernable creative output means that it is difficult to judge their labor by anything but the movie that it helps to produce. Historically, assistant directors could aspire to become full directors with a shot at awards ceremony glory, as Alfred Hitchcock did, but more recently the path has tended to lead to producer roles. There’s no Oscar for that, either, but at least they get a little more notice in the end credits.

5. Best Short Subject – Comedy/Novelty, One-Reel/Two-Reel/Color

The award that gave way to today’s Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film has seen a number of divisions and subdivisions over time, due both to changing technology and changing tastes in content. The distinction between the Comedy and Novelty categories might as well have been called “Comedy” and “Other”—there was no shortage of films featuring humorous subjects, which were naturally popular with 1930s audiences; all others were lumped into the Novelty category, for audiences for whom moving pictures themselves were still something of a novelty. Later categories distinguishing one-reel from two-reel shorts classified the films by their definition of “short”—one reel referred to, literally, a single 1000-foot length of film corresponding to about 11 minutes of screen time; a two-reel was twice that. Awarding an Oscar for Best Short Subject – Color went out of fashion, of course, when color became the default standard.

6. Best Engineering Effects

Awarded once and only once to Wings at the first-ever Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, the Engineering Effects category seems incredibly niche today. It was the predecessor, however, to a more general Best Special Effects award, which was subsequently renamed Best Special Visual Effects before the Academy settled on its most modern version as, simply, Best Visual Effects.

7. Best Original Musical or Comedy Score

This particular category still exists, but with fewer restrictions, in its current incarnation as Best Original Score, as the Academy likely recognized the significant contributions made by musical effects even in dramatic movies. The increasingly hazy definitions of musical and comedy may also have played a role in their decision, as contemporary films incorporate both musical and comedic elements without necessarily identifying within those prescribed genres.

There is, in fact, still an award for Best Original Musical still legitimately up for grabs, but it’s been effectively defunct in the absence of sufficient eligible candidates every year since it was last awarded to Purple Rain in 1984. Until Michael Bay makes the Transformers sing and dance, it seems unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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