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6 Nonexistent People Who Were Nominated for Oscars

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AFP/Getty Images

It’s hard enough to get nominated for an Academy Award if you're a living, breathing person. It’s even harder to be nominated when you don’t actually exist. Here are six “people” who did just that.


Dalton Trumbo—the subject of this year's Oscar-nominated biopic Trumbo—was famously part of the infamous Hollywood blacklist during the Communist-hunting McCarthy Era. But he wouldn’t let a ban keep him from writing, and he did so under not one pseudonym, but dozens. Two of them won Academy Awards. Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party USA who served 11 months in a Kentucky penitentiary for contempt of Congress when he refused to name names during the HUAC investigation. He won an Oscar for The Brave One under the name Robert Rich, which he eventually received in 1975, just a year before his death. Trumbo also wrote Roman Holiday using real writer Ian McLellan Hunter as a front. McLellan received the Academy Award for Roman Holiday, but later admitted he hadn’t been involved with it at all. Trumbo received his rightful posthumous Oscar in 1993 for the Audrey Hepburn classic, and in 2011, writing credit was restored on the movie itself.


This one is slightly misleading, because Pierre Boulle did actually exist. Not only did he write the novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai, he also penned Planet of the Apes. But even though Boulle won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for Bridge, he didn’t actually write it—nor did he speak or read any English whatsoever. The real writers who adapted the novel were also part of the blacklist, so they were unable to take credit for their achievement. The widows of the two writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, finally received their posthumous Academy Awards in 1985.


Similarly, Nathan E. Douglas was invented to cover for Nedrick Young, a writer who was blacklisted after invoking his Fifth Amendment rights during his trial by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him credit for the Oscar win in 1993, 25 years after Young’s death. Young was also nominated for Inherit the Wind in 1960, but didn't win.



Well, P.H. Vazak did exist. But if he wrote Greystoke, he deserves an entry in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not as well as the Oscar history books, since P.H. Vazak was a Hungarian sheepdog. The real writer behind the screenplay, Robert Towne, was unhappy with the direction some rewrites had taken and decided he didn’t want credit for them. Though it surely would have been more entertaining than most of the speeches given at the 1985 Academy Awards ceremony, P.H. Vazak didn’t have to give a speech: Amadeus won for Best Adapted Screenplay instead.



Roderick Jaynes is a pretty talented guy for not being a real person. Jaynes has edited all of the Coen brothers's movies and was even nominated as one of Entertainment Weekly’s Smartest People in Hollywood in 2007. Joel Coen explained that Jaynes probably wouldn't be making an appearance at the 2008 Oscars, despite the nomination. “He’s very old—late 80s, early 90s—so I don’t know if he’d make the trip." In actuality, the Coens edit all of their own movies and use the elderly Brit as a front. Jaynes didn't win for No Country, and when asked how the award-less editor was dealing with the loss, Ethan Coen replied, "We know he's elderly and unhappy, so probably not well."



In the late 1990s, Charlie Kaufman was hired to write a film adaptation of Susan Orlean’s best-selling novel, The Orchid Thief. He promptly came down with a killer case of writer’s block, but instead of letting it stop the process, Kaufman wrote it into the story he was struggling with. He created a fictional brother named Donald, who helped him write the movie—both the one in the movie and the movie itself. However, when the real movie got nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, the “real” Donald Kaufman had tragically perished during pre-production. It turns out Donald wouldn’t have had to claim the Oscar alongside his faux brother anyway: Adaptation lost out to Ronald Harwood for The Pianist.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2013.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]