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Mitzi Trumbo/Samuel Goldwyn Films/AMC

5 Facts About Bryan Cranston's Next Role

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Mitzi Trumbo/Samuel Goldwyn Films/AMC

Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston has signed on to play blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. That name might not be familiar to everyone, but if you like classic movies, you probably know his work. Here's a look at the former American Communist Party member who wrote Spartacus, Roman Holiday, and a slew of other great films.

1. He Was a Bakery Pro

While Trumbo was trying to make it as a writer in Los Angeles, he got a job as a night wrapper at a bread bakery to help him make enough cash until he started selling his work. As it turned out, he held this bakery job for nearly a decade; from 1925 to 1934 he diligently wrapped bread at night and wrote during the day.

The only problem was that nobody seemed to like his writing much. Trumbo penned six novels and close to 90 short stories during his bakery years, and publishers rejected each one. His life wasn't boring, though. Trumbo also dabbled in some side rackets, including repossessing motorcycles, to supplement his bakery earnings. Another thing Trumbo tried was bootlegging, although he quickly got out of that business after rivals killed a pair of his competitors.

The brief stint running liquor actually ended up launching Trumbo's career, though. In 1932 he sold a piece about the bootlegging business to Vanity Fair, and the magazine liked the story so much it made Trumbo its new Hollywood correspondent, which finally enabled him to leave the bakery.

2. He Didn't Name Names

As an artistic, working-class pacifist, Trumbo was an ideal recruit for the 1940s-era Communist Party, and he did in fact join up in 1943. Unfortunately, this affiliation wasn't the wisest show business career move at the time. In 1947, Trumbo and nine other writers and directors had to go before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about the insidious threat of Communism in Hollywood.

When Trumbo and his fellow witnesses refused to testify or name names of other Hollywood communists, they were convicted of contempt of Congress and placed on the Hollywood blacklists. Not only did it seem like Trumbo's career as a screenwriter was probably over, but he also had to spend 11 months in a federal prison in Kentucky.

3. But He Didn't Stop Writing

Even though Trumbo went to jail and found his way onto the Hollywood blacklist, he didn't stop writing. On the contrary, he surreptitiously did some of his best work during the blacklist years. After getting out of jail, Trumbo decamped to Mexico and started cranking out scripts under a variety of pseudonyms, including Sally Stubblefield.

While on the blacklist Trumbo wrote films as varied as the John Dall noir classic Gun Crazy and Roman Holiday. On some movies Trumbo used a pseudonym, while on others he had another scriptwriter serve as a "front."

English writer Ian McLellan Hunter fronted for Trumbo on Roman Holiday and actually ended up winning an Oscar for his trouble.

Trumbo also wrote the 1956 film The Brave One under the pseudonym Robert Rich; this work also won an Oscar for its writing. Since Trumbo couldn't very well turn up to accept his statue, half a dozen impostor Robert Riches showed up to pick up "their" honor the next day.

Eventually the Academy rectified these injustices. In 1975, it presented Trumbo with his Oscar for The Brave One, and in 1993 his wife Cleo accepted a posthumous Oscar for the Roman Holiday script.

4. He Put Metallica on the Charts

In 1939, Trumbo published the anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, a nightmarish look at the life of a World War I veteran who has lost his limbs, face, and voice after being hit by an artillery shell. The novel slips back and forth between fantasy and the protagonist's hellish reality, and although it's very well written, it's incredibly difficult to read due to the bleak, gruesome content. Nevertheless, the book was a big success in the years leading up to World War II, even winning the forerunner to the National Book Award.

What does that have to do with Metallica, though? James Hetfield thought it was so amazing that he wrote a song about it for the album And Justice For All. The song, "One," ended up being the fourth single released from the album in 1989, and it became Metallica's first song to crack the Top 40. What's more, the song earned Metallica its first Grammy, a 1990 win for Best Metal Performance. One music video for the song even features spliced footage from the film adaptation of the novel, which Trumbo directed himself.

5. He Had Some Interesting Work Habits

Writers often like to work in seemingly bizarre settings, but it must have been pretty amazing to walk in on Trumbo furiously working on a script. For starters, Trumbo liked to bang out his screenplays from the bathtub at night. Working from the tub isn't so strange, but Trumbo often had company when he wrote: a parrot that Spartacus star Kirk Douglas had given the writer as a gift.

Douglas later wrote of Trumbo in his autobiography The Ragman's Son, "He worked at night, often in the bathtub, the typewriter in front of him on a tray, a cigarette in his mouth (he smoked six packs a day). On his shoulder perched a parrot I had given him, pecking Dalton's ear while Dalton pecked at the keys."

Steve Martin dated Trumbo's daughter Mitzi and later recalled how Trumbo smoked pot to curb his drinking and exercised by walking laps around his swimming pool while smoking a cigarette.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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