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Doug McClure and Troy Donahue, the Two Halves of Troy McClure

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Hi, I’m D.B. Grady. You might remember me from such articles as The Criminal Lives of Classical Composers and Remarkable Things Discovered Under Parking Lots. In all of television history, no fictional character hosting fictional documentaries is better loved than Troy McClure. Voiced by the late Phil Hartman, the Simpsons fixture was based on real-life actors Doug McClure and Troy Donahue, the producers taking the surname from one and the first name from the other. Here are a few things you might not know about both halves of Troy McClure.

Troy Donahue almost married into the Corleone crime family.

“I don't know this Merle,” said Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II, “I don't know what he does. I don't know what he lives on.” Michael might have been more open to his sister marrying Merle Johnson if he’d known that the would-be groom was played by the future Troy Donahue. But here’s the postmodern twist—”Troy Donahue” was just a screen name that Hollywood producers gave the actor at the start of his career. His real name? Merle Johnson.

A certain Simpsons character seemed strangely familiar...

"Are they making fun of me?" asked Doug McClure while he and his family were watching an episode of The Simpsons. According to his daughter, Doug became a big fan of the series, and his kids jokingly called him “Troy” behind his back.

Troy is the word.

Troy Donahue features in the lyrics of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” from the musical Grease:

As for you Troy Donahue,
I know what you wanna do
You got your crust
I'm no object of lust
I'm just plain Sandra Dee

He was also the subject of Andy Warhol in the photo-silkscreen print Troy Diptych.

They once crossed paths in the Old West.

The Virginian ran for nine seasons and was the first 90-minute western series on television. It was also, apparently, the nexus of pop culture. Among the show’s many guest stars were George C. Scott, Harrison Ford, William Shatner, Ricardo Montalban (KHAAAAAAAN!), Burgess Meredith, and Leslie Nielsen. Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley once appeared together. And even though they have two hundred movies and TV roles between them, Shiloh Ranch marked the one place where Doug McClure and Troy Donahue appeared together on screen, in a single 1969 episode titled “Fox, Hound and the Widow McCloud.”

“Damn, it's nice to be a movie star.”

Troy Donahue got his big break when he was cast opposite Sandra Dee in the film A Summer Place. "I think I was always just amazed, and I never got cocky about the whole thing," he later said. "It was more of a 'Gee whiz' or 'Damn, it's nice to be a movie star' kind of feeling." His most successful star vehicle was 1961’s Parrish, a coming of age story of a young farmer and businessman; his most remembered role will probably be the aforementioned Merle Johnson from The Godfather, Part II.

McClure’s most famous role was on The Virginian, where he starred as Trampas, a boisterous, reformed villain who worked on the Shiloh Ranch. Said McClure of the role, "I'm back where I want to be. I like doing outdoor shows. I'm out in the fresh air instead of being cooped up in a stage all day, and this show gives you a chance to get a little color in the characterization. In a detective show, most of the dialogue is along the lines of ‘Where were you on the night of Jan. 12?’”

Doug McClure gets a star

Two months before he died of lung cancer, Doug McClure received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "It gave me the incentive to get well,” he said at the event, “and I am well." Indeed, he was well enough to guest star in episodes of Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues and One West Waikiki. McClure collapsed on set of the Hawaii-based television series, and later learned that his cancer had spread to his liver and bones. He died on February 5, 1995 at the age of 59.

“It's never been as good as it is now.”

After his star reached its peak in the mid-1960s, Troy Donahue spent the next thirty years as a B-movie superstar. His last role was in the 2000 independent comedy The Boys Behind the Desk. "I'm not looking for comebacks," he said in an interview. "I don't pine for the old days or think, 'Oh, it could have been.' It's never been as good as it is now, and if you told me back then that this is the way it was going to be, I would have been much relieved." He died in 2001 at the age of 62.

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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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May 23, 2017
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