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Hairspray: Where Are They Now?

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Ah, 1988. Songs from Michael Jackson's Bad album were all over the radio, Bill Cosby was showing us a new sweater every week on The Cosby Show, and 19-year-old Ricki Lake made her feature film debut in John Waters' Hairspray. Talk about things that make you feel ancient. Here's what the cast has been up to in the last two and a half decades.

1. Ricki Lake

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I probably don’t need to tell you what Ricki Lake has been doing since her star turn as Tracy Turnblad. First there was the talk show that ran for 11 years. There were other John Waters films, including Cry-Baby and Serial Mom. She did a documentary called The Business of Being Born. She did Dancing with the Stars and came in third place. Lake most recently tried her hand at the talk show business again, but it was cancelled in February after just one season.

2. Leslie Ann Powers


Penny Pingleton has seemingly disappeared. Hairspray was her one and only movie role, and in the DVD commentary for the movie, John Waters said he didn’t know what had become of her either. If anyone knows Ms. Powers, tell her the world is looking for her. Coincidentally, no one knows what’s going on with the 2007 Penny Pingleton, either.

3. Colleen Fitzpatrick

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That girl you know as the snotty, privileged socialite Amber Von Tussle? She grew up to be Vitamin C. Shall I pause for a moment to let that sink in? Wait, it gets better. The last we heard from Fitzpatrick, she was assaulting our ears with the syrupy song “Graduation (Friends Forever)”. But she’s been working quietly behind the scenes ever since, writing music for the likes of Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato and producing a girl group called The Stunners. And—get this—in 2012, she was named Nickelodeon’s Vice President of Music. She oversees all music for Nickelodeon and all of its sister stations, and is in charge of managing all Nickelodeon recording artists.

4. Divine


Sadly, Divine, AKA Glenn Milstead, passed away of an enlarged heart not even a month after Hairspray's premiere. In 2011, his estate released Postcards From Divine, a collection of postcards he sent his parents while traveling the world at the height of his fame.

5. Michael St. Gerard


Although he had several roles after Hairspray (including four as Elvis) dreamy Link Larkin quit showbiz to become a youth pastor. As of 2011, he was working at Harlem Square Church in NYC. 

6. Shawn Alex Thompson

You know him as Corny Collins, but Thompson has been doing plenty of other things since his days as Hairspray's Ryan Seacrest. He wrote for The Outer Limits, has won three Gemini Awards (the Canadian Emmys) for his cult TV show Puppets Who Kill and has also developed several series for HBO.

7. Debbie Harry

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Debbie Harry, of course, has been busy being fabulous since she played Velma Von Tussle. Thirty-six films and seven albums, to be exact.

8. Jerry Stiller

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Jerry Stiller has also been busy being fabulous since he played Tracy Turnblad's dad back in 1988. It was five years after Hairspray that Stiller got the now-famous role as George Costanza's dad on Seinfeld, then he spent nearly 10 years playing Arthur Spooner on King of Queens. 

9. Sonny Bono


The same year he hit theaters as Amber's doting dad Franklin Von Tussle, Sonny Bono also became the mayor of Palm Springs. In 1995, Bono became the first (and thus far, only) pop star with a #1 hit on the Billboard charts to become a Congressman.

Sadly, as most people know, Bono died in a skiing accident in 1998.

10. Clayton Prince

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Immediately after Hairspray, Prince played Reuben Lawrence on Another World. He had minor parts on JAG, Third Watch, and Spin City through out the 1990s and early 2000s. His most recent role was in a 2011 Jennifer Love Hewitt video called "Cafe." He was also involved in a 2011 lawsuit in which an undercover police officer totaled Prince's car, then used his undercover I.D. as identity. When Prince went to file insurance, he discovered that the man who supposedly hit his car didn't exist.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]