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How Did ALF Work?

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Shortly after ALF debuted on NBC in 1986, the furry little wisecracking alien was seemingly everywhere: on lunchboxes, in toy stores, on T-shirts, and hanging from rear-view mirrors. Even though he had terrible table manners and house cats weren’t safe around him, ALF seemed like he’d be a fun guy to work with. But all was not happy on the set, due in no small part to the logistical nightmare Paul Fusco’s puppet presented.

Being ALF

For the first two seasons of the show, there was a little person inside of an ALF costume for any full-body scenes. At one point, 33-inch-tall Mihaly “Michu” Meszaros was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s shortest person. And while life in his native Hungary as a youth was brutal (thanks to unscrupulous circus owners), a day in a furry costume under hot studio lights may often have been worse.

Any close-ups or talking shots of ALF were a puppet operated by the alien’s creator, Paul Fusco. The entire soundstage was built on a four-foot-high platform so that Fusco could sit underneath it and make ALF move and talk through one of the dozens of trap doors that were cut through the floor.

Members of the cast had to carefully negotiate the stage while reciting their lines without stumbling, and also without constantly gazing downward to make sure they avoided all the possible pitfalls. And every time ALF was moved to a different spot, all the lighting and camera positions had to be readjusted, making for endless delays. While a typical 30-minute sitcom takes about three to five hours to actually film, the ALF cast was required on stage and in makeup/wardrobe for 20 to 25 hours (spread over two days) to film each episode. Not surprisingly, none of the actors involved were disappointed when ALF was cancelled after its fourth season.

Where Are They Now?

Max Wright
The actor who played Willie Tanner had the most onscreen time with ALF, much to his consternation. Wright often resented all the best jokes being given to a puppet, but because of his hilarious portrayal of the long-suffering family patriarch, many of the plots paired him in some adventure or scheme with the furry alien. Wright went on to co-star in The Norm Show and make occasional appearances as the Central Perk manager on Friends. Sadly he received some unwanted publicity in 2005 when a tabloid published photos of him smoking crack cocaine. He now prefers to act in the theater, and acknowledges that despite his complaints at the time, “ALF brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.”

Anne Schedeen
After playing Kate Tanner, Anne Schedeen did a few small guest roles on other series, but she ultimately retired from acting. She turned her love of scavenging through antique shops and flea markets into a second career; she’s been professionally decorating the homes of friends and fellow actors in the Los Angeles area for the past dozen or so years.

Andrea Elson
While playing teenaged daughter Lynn on the show, Elson met a production assistant named Scott Hopper. Romance bloomed and the pair married in 1993. Elson continued to act for a while, but after the birth of her daughter in 1997 she decided that being a mom was the full-time job that appealed to her the most.

Benjamin Gregory Hertzberg
Benji Gregory, as he was known when he played the youngest Tanner, has mostly fond memories of life on the ALF set. However, he also remembered that the main thing he wanted to do every day was go home and skateboard. He’d started acting in commercials at age 13 months, and even though he did do a few cartoon voice-overs after ALF ended, he decided that he’d had enough. His parents invested his earnings and he went to the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. In 2003 he joined the U.S. Navy and eventually became an Aerographer's Mate at The Center for Naval Education in Biloxi, MS. Today he lives with his wife in Arizona.

Mihaly “Michu” Meszaros
Michu, who’d defected from Hungary in 1980, became a U.S. citizen in 1990, an occasion he described as “the biggest day of my life.” After retiring from show business, Michu became a real estate developer. The city of Hawthorne in southern California named its shortest street “Michu Lane.”

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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]