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Coming Up Tort: 8 Crazy Pop Culture Lawsuits

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Swimming pools, fancy cars, and a lawyer on speed dial—they're all the trappings of fame. These eight pop culture lawsuits prove that sometimes when notable people fight the law, we all win.

1. Bill Cosby v. CosbySweaters.com

Don't bandy about Bill Cosby's name. The comedian just might come after you, and it won't be with a bowl of Jell-O. Cosby's legal team recently sued blogger Kiley Kmiec over the website CosbySweaters.com, aimed at "sports fans who love music, tech, pop culture, and dumb Internet videos." Kmiec had to change the name of the site, despite the fact that no one owns the trademark for the term "Cosby sweater." To play it safe, I'm going to start calling them "variegated sweaters as worn by TV dad Cliff Huxtable."

2. Chubby Checker v. Hewlett Packard and Palm Inc.

Chubby Checker's most famous for his 1960 hit cover of "The Twist." And Mr. Checker would like to keep it that way! That's why he's suing Hewlett Packard and Palm Inc. for a half-billion dollars in damages over a 99-cent mobile app called The Chubby Checker. The now-disabled app helped users predict the size of male genitalia by entering shoe sizes. (Yep, there was an app for that. With fewer than 100 downloads, turns out.) You know what they say about big celebrities... Big lawsuits!

3. John Waters v. Rugrats

Suing the Rugrats might seem like stealing candy from an animated baby, but John Waters said he'd do just that in 2003. The big stink: Nickelodeon's use of the idea and term "Odorama," which involved giving Rugrats Go Wild ticket holders scratch-and-sniff cards to be smelled during key movie scenes. The idea wasn't new: Waters employed the same idea—under the same trademarked name—in screenings of his 1982 film Polyester. Nickelodeon claimed the idea was an homage to Waters, not theft. But for legal reasons, it made scents to change the name of their concept to Aroma-Scope.

4. Mark Durante v. Kevin Durant

Most of us don't get to choose our nicknames. No one knows who first started calling NBA star Kevin Durant "Durantula," but the name caught on and has been used all over the press. Now Mark Durante, a 1980s hair metal guitarist from obscure bands including the Slammin' Watusis and The Next Big Thing (it wasn't), is suing the Oklahoma City Thunder forward. Durante claims he owns the trademark to "Durantula." It's even his URL. Durant's camp takes no responsibility for the nickname. There's only one way to fairly resolve this: in the courts ... without a basketball.

5. Clint Eastwood v. Palliser Furniture

Sometimes Clint Eastwood likes talking to chairs. But now he's in a big argument about one with Palliser Furniture. Eastwood sued the company for trademark infringement when they named one of their plush, leather theater chairs "The Eastwood." And this won't be Palliser's first time in court. They were recently sued for another chair named "The Brando" and sell other Hollywood-inspired models, including "The Connery" and "The Bronson." If Palliser's not careful, it could end up The Bankrupt.

6. Rosa Parks v. OutKast

"Rosa Parks" was the most successful single on OutKast's 1998 album Aquemini. It's also the only one that got the hip hop duo sued by the civil rights activist. In addition to using Parks' name without permission, her legal reprsentative felt the song was disrespectful to her legacy. Some offending lyrics: "Ah ha, hush that fuss / Everybody move to the back of the bus / Do you want to bump and slump with us / We the type of people make the club get crunk." The case was dismissed and appealed a few times before being privately settled for an undisclosed sum in 2005.

7. Aza v. Carly Rae Jepsen

Whether you've listened to it 374,829 times or not, "Call Me Maybe" is a catchy tune. But a Russian singer named Aza alleges that Carly Rae Jepsen doesn't deserve the credit. The Ukrainian chanteuse claims that Jepsen's hit is just a slightly altered version of her Christmas song "Hunky Santa." We're including the video below, so you can be the judge. I'm no lawyer, but I'm thinking, "Hey, she just sued her for publicity. And this is crazy. But this lawsuit really exists, so throw it out maybe?"

8. Mr. T v. Best Buy

We pity the fool who uses Mr. T's likeness without permission. In 2003, Best Buy did just that in a print ad which made it look like Mr. T was fighting a salesman. Naturally, Mr. T punched them in the face ... with a lawsuit. A lack of online information (web-idence?) suggests that the electronics retailer "quit its jibba jabba" and the matter was settled out of court.

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technology
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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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Animals
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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]

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