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Disney on Ice: The Truth About Walt Disney and Cryogenics

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Wikimedia Commons

Forty-seven years ago today, the world lost a visionary when Walt Disney passed away at the age of 65.

Though he kept his habit away from the eyes of the children at his parks, Disney was a lifelong, three-pack-a-day smoker. The habit caught up with him on November 2, 1966, when an X-ray revealed a tumor on his left lung. On November 11, surgeons removed Walt’s left lung and gave him the bad news that the tumor had metastasized. Though they gave him six months to two years to live, Walt lasted just 34 days, succumbing to lung cancer on December 15.

Contrary to popular belief, Disney was cremated two days later—not frozen. After decades of speculation, his family finally decided they were tired of the rumor mill. In 2012, Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, told the Daily Mail that part of the reason the Disneys opened the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco was to combat some of the ridiculous rumors about her father’s life, including the Walt-cicle tall tale. “Other little kids would say to my kids, ‘Your grandfather is frozen, isn’t he?’ And I couldn’t let that stand,” Disney Miller said.

That little myth probably got started in 1972, when Bob Nelson, then the president of the Cryonics Society of California, gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times. Though what he specifically said was that Walt was not cryogenically frozen, even going so far as to say, “They had him cremated. I personally have seen his ashes,” what people likely remembered from the article was his statement that Walt wanted to be frozen.

He based this theory on the fact that Walt Disney Studios called Nelson prior to Disney’s death and asked elaborate questions about the process, the facilities, the staff, and their history. “The truth is, Walt missed out,” Nelson said. “He never specified it in writing, and when he died the family didn’t go for it. ... Two weeks later we froze the first man. If Disney had been the first it would have made headlines around the world and been a real shot in the arm for cryonics.”

So, mystery solved. Walt is not on ice; he's at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, buried with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. (That's their plot in the picture above.)

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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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