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The Time George Takei Worked With Godzilla

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The teaser trailer for Legendary Pictures’ highly-anticipated Godzilla reboot leaked last month and has since been disappearing and reappearing all over the web. While it looks like the big guy’s going to have a few new monsters to fight in his latest romp, let’s take a moment to remember one of Godzilla’s most surprising co-stars: George Takei.

Long before reaching stardom as Mr. Sulu of the U.S.S. Enterprise and again as a pun-loving facebook celebrity, Takei got his start working on the English dubs of Japanese creature features. It all began when Takei’s father, Takekuma (to whom he dedicated a moving tribute you can read here), spotted an ad for Japanese voice-actors and encouraged his then college-age son to try out, saying “You’re a real ham. You could do this.”

Takei was cast in Rodan (1957), a film about two colossal prehistoric pterosaurs which wreak havoc upon the city of Fukuoka. Lending his distinctive baritone to its American voice-over, Rodan became the young actor’s first paid acting job and it wasn’t long before he found himself working with a more infamous giant.  

Gigantis the Fire Monster (1959), an American edit of Godzilla Raids Again, marked the radioactive reptile’s second film appearance (the name was changed because U.S. producers wanted their audiences to think they were seeing an entirely new beast as opposed to a sequel).Takei served as the movie’s narrator and human protagonist.

In any language-dubbing process, much is bound to get lost in the translation and, as Takei notes in this clip around the 6:22 mark, this project was no exception:

“In Gigantis,” he recalls, “there was one word that we had tremendous difficulty getting the meaning of and finding an English word that fit the lip movement. The Japanese word was ‘bakayaro,’ which means ‘stupid fool.’” After struggling to find something that would match, the director finally came up with the line “banana oil,” which you can hear Takei deliver in the movie’s final version.

Despite this challenge, Takei’s fondly cited the experience as “great fun” and went on to voice a host of animated projects outside of his accomplished live-action career. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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