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Boardwalk Empire's Atlantic City Consultant

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To fans of Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson is the morally complex protagonist they’ve come to love and hate in equal parts since the show, created by Terence Winter and executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg, debuted on HBO in 2010. For Atlantic City native Vicki Gold Levi, he’s a fictional version of Nucky Johnson, the city’s very real former political boss whom she had occasion to meet as a youngster. She has hung with Meyer Lansky and Frank Sinatra, too.

Call it one of the perks of being the daughter of Al Gold, Atlantic City’s official photographer for 25 years beginning in 1939, who instilled a love of the city in Levi that only true locals can understand. It’s this same passion for her hometown’s golden age that led Levi to co-author Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness and to become one of Hollywood’s go-to resources for re-creating America’s Favorite Playground. Which is how she landed a consultant gig on Boardwalk Empire, where she works with research adviser Edward McGinty to ensure that every detail of her beloved Boardwalk is exactly as she remembers it.

How did you come to get involved with Boardwalk Empire?

I co-founded the Atlantic City Historical Museum, which is on the Boardwalk at Garden Pier, over 30 years ago. But it all started when I co-authored a book with [former Esquire Editor-in-Chief] Lee Eisenberg called Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness in 1979, which is still in print. That was kind of the bible of Atlantic City history, but a more popular version of it. It’s a photo book and it’s written from a fun and glamorous perspective. And then I also did a documentary for the museum called Boardwalk Ballyhoo. Since I did all of that, I have been one of the go-to people for [projects related to] Atlantic City. I worked on Disney’s BoardWalk [attraction], I worked on the Broadway show Steel Pier, and I worked on Louis Malle’s movie Atlantic City. I’ve been sort of in the thick of things down there and so I was a logical person for them to explore.

What are some of the projects or episodes you’ve helped with?

Let me tell you how it works: I have a person there, Ed McGinty, who’s the head researcher at the show. He’s from Atlantic City and has been working on the show since the beginning and he’s kind of my go-to person on the show.

There are three ways that I have evolved in working on the show: I’m a consultant, so I don’t really see the scripts, because they keep all of that very private—sometimes even the actors don’t see the whole script because the surprise element is so important. So I am either asked a specific, historical question, which might be something like “What was the name of King Neptune in 1923 in the Miss America Pageant?” That’s one thing that happens. Another thing is that sometimes I feel there’s something they should know about, so I make up a portfolio of things that I think are important in that year... So I might say, 'Well this is the year the Miss America Pageant started' or 'This year they built this hotel' or blah, blah, blah. I funnel all of that info to Ed McGinty, and then he gives it to the writers. So sometimes I see things that I know I sent in, but I can’t be 100 percent sure that I’m the only person who sent it in. But I know I’m on the right page.

For example, [the character of] Jimmy Darmody: When they shot him—which was a big thing and they’re still talking about it—they shot him in front of the All-War Memorial monument on Albany Avenue that was just going up. Now I don’t think someone in Dubuque, Iowa knew what it was, but I knew what it was. (Laughs) And although it may have come from other places, too, I sent a portfolio in on that monument being opened that year.

The other thing I started to do, which I’m going to start doing again in January, is to come in once a year and talk to the writers. That way, if I have some very specific things I want to tell the writers directly, I can do that. I can tell them, ‘This is really a great visual’ or ‘This is a really great historical idea,’ and then it’s up to them. The show has expanded. It’s now in Chicago, it’s in Philadelphia and New York and now it’s in Tampa, which is kind of creeping down to Cuba. If the show goes long enough that Meyer Lansky actually does go to Cuba, I can offer a lot.

Did you ever meet any of the characters portrayed on the show?

I actually met Meyer Lansky in New York when I was very young. Of course, I had no idea who he was; he looked just like Lee Strasberg in The Godfather. I knew his daughter and at one point there was a fire in the building where I lived in New York and I got smoked out. Meyer’s daughter had a big apartment on West End Avenue, so she invited me to stay there until the smoke was cleared from my apartment. And her father would come to visit his grandchildren. He was an old man and was perfectly nice, but it is kind of funny.

And of course I met Nucky Johnson, but I was very young. Because he was the former political boss of Atlantic City and my father was a city employee, everybody knew him. I remember meeting him as a little girl. I didn’t know him intimately, but I always remembered his wife. He married a showgirl, Flossie Osbeck, before his trial so that she couldn’t testify against him. But she had these long, red, dragon lady nails that as a young girl I was very impressed by and I still remember them.

Have you spent any time on the renovated boardwalk set in Brooklyn?

Much of the set comes from the pages of my book. It was extremely exciting to see incubator babies, Abe Klein’s restaurant, Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy, and all that stuff just sprung from the pages of my book in 3-D. They did such a brilliant job, I was actually in tears. I was so moved by the re-creation and the colors and the arches and the signage and even the Boardwalk. Ed McGinty and I even talked about this when they were building that boardwalk they have in Brooklyn: the Atlantic City Boardwalk is unique in a couple of ways. One is that along the railings it has knuckles. In Coney Island, it’s just straight railing with up and down, but in Atlantic City the up and down have knuckles on them. I remember when I was a consultant on the movie Beaches, which was filmed in Brooklyn, I was adamant that ‘You have to make these knuckles,’ and they made it out of some polymer. In this one, the railings have those knuckles.

Also, the Boardwalk in Boardwalk Empire isn’t straight boards; it’s got a herringbone pattern. And that’s very Atlantic City; not many boardwalks have that. So the whole thing was so authentic, even when you walked into the stores, it just told me from day one that this was going to be a production of perfection. And it’s been that on every level—the writing, the action, the clothing, the re-creations.

In the book that you co-wrote, the photo book, did you use your father’s photos?

I have some, but I also have my own major collection. A lot of my father’s pictures were destroyed, unfortunately, in hurricanes and stuff at the Convention Hall. People think I have a ton of my father’s pictures, when really I don’t have enough. I have some, but I’ve been collecting Atlantic City pictures for years, so I have my own collection. And most of my memorabilia collection formed the Atlantic City Historical Museum. But I haven’t donated my photos because it allows me to have my own reference department right here in my house. And I have a big Atlantic City library—every book that ever mentioned Atlantic City. And sometimes I get old phone books and things like that.

You’ve been living in New York City since the 1960s. What keeps your ties to Atlantic City so strong?

That’s an interesting question. A lot of my best friends are still from Atlantic City; some live there and some live here. We have a saying in Atlantic City: “sand in your shoes.” There is something about growing up in Atlantic City that really ties you to it, at least in the era that I grew up. Because it’s a big town little town. In the winter time, it’s a little town and if you have a sorority dance you can have it at the biggest hotel in town, because business is slow. And in the summer you’ve got Frank Sinatra and all the other big stars there and everyone’s got a summer job and you’re all mixed up in the ballyhoo and the hoopla of the town. And I also was a child actress down there; I was a disc jockey at the age of five. I had my own radio show.

At five years old?

Yeah, I had a show called “Views by Vicki.” And when Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America, I was her page every night, carrying her big red velvet train down the runway. And I was Miss Hydrangea. I had this little child actress celebrity life in Atlantic City, so I had an unusual childhood down there. I was always on the floats for Miss America and things like that. We were very big Atlantic City Boosters...

It’s not like any other place in New Jersey. It really isn’t. It’s not the Jersey Shore, it’s not Snooki. Atlantic City was once considered for the United Nations, it had one of the first air-cooled theaters, it had one of the earliest postcards, it had a Ferris Wheel before the Ferris Wheel… There’s so much history and it really was a place where everyone went. There’s so much history to tell and it’s a place that really grabs you and we all remember it fondly.

Your father was clearly a big influence on your love of Atlantic City, and dedication to keeping its history alive. What do you think he’d say about Boardwalk Empire?

He was born in 1902, so I don’t know how he would feel about the nudity, but he would be thrilled about this national TV show. He was an Atlantic City booster. He would be telling Nucky stories—the real Nucky stories—because he knew him well… He would be telling you the inside scoop on different characters on the show that are local. They’d want him as the consultant instead of me!

People look at Atlantic City today and they think: Gambling! Do you think that people’s interest in the history of Atlantic City from an historical and cultural perspective has changed as a result of the show?

Oh, yeah. People are really interested in the show, everywhere I go. I was in Cuba and people said to me, “Oh, you know Nucky?” They were referring to Steve Buscemi, of course, but people are watching the show down in Cuba. This show has a real grip on the people who are fans of it. I myself cannot wait for Sundays to see the show.

What is it that draws you to the show, separate from working on it?

I can work on something and not love it; I could do that and just do my job. But I’m a big fan of the show. The acting is so good and the clothes and the authenticity. Nucky often drives in a blue Rolls-Royce like the real Nucky did. Nucky Thompson is not Nucky Johnson; it’s a prototype. It’s historical fiction, and that’s really important to establish. That doesn’t mean that they don’t say that the right person was in office. Edward Bader was Mayor of Atlantic City at that time—they’re accurate to that. But a lot of people ask me, “Oh, was Nucky Johnson a murderer?” Not to my personal knowledge. But Nucky Thompson is. So it’s historical fiction based on the prototype. It’s not the actual story of Nucky Johnson and it’s important to delineate that. I think people understand that by now, this is its fourth season… I can’t say enough about the show and the experience. There are enough references to let you know that there’s been research done.

Yes, you can tell that what you’re watching is authentic and meticulously researched rather than just thrown together based on someone’s idea of what a particular time and place looked and/or felt like.

When I hear them mention Rendezvous Park, that’s just so “inside.” You might hear of Miss America, but you’re not going to hear of Rendezvous Park unless you’re paying attention to the research. And of course Rendezvous Park was the site of the Convention Hall—I know that history. So I can see that they’re putting their ducks in a row.

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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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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]