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11 Directors Who Collaborated with Michael Jackson

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Michael Jackson was, unquestionably, one of the most influential artists in modern pop music. His world-wide hits and record-breaking albums gave him the power to push the medium of the music video farther than any musical artist before or after him. During his genre-pushing career on film and television, Jackson worked with 11 high-profile directors to create unique and groundbreaking content. 

1. Bob Giraldi

When CBS refused to finance Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, the singer ended up putting $150,000 of his own money down on the project. He asked Bob Giraldi to write and direct the video after Jackson saw a commercial Giraldi had directed. "As I was told, there was a certain spot that I directed in my early years as a commercial director for WLS-TV in Chicago, about two elderly blind people—a married couple—that didn't run from a neighborhood that all the other white folks fled from," Giraldi said. "It had become a very inner city, tough neighborhood and they chose to stay and throw a block party for all the young kids in the neighborhood. It was a commercial that Michael was really taken with." Giraldi based “Beat It,” his first music video, on his upbringing in New Jersey.

2. John Landis

An American Werewolf in London director John Landis also directed Jackson's nearly 14-minute-long ghoul-fest, “Thriller.” Jackson decided to call Landis after seeing An American Werewolf in London; the singer enjoyed the film’s mix of gruesome transformation horror and comedy. Ever the self-documentarian, Jackson’s camp had the entire production filmed for a making-of video that was paired with its VHS release.

3. and 4. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola

In 1986, George Lucas took a break from working on his original Star Wars trilogy to work with The Godfather and Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Jackson on a long-form music video—a sci-fi 3D epic called Captain EO—for Disneyland. Coppola and Lucas tailored the story of a space captain spreading love and music through the universe to fit a list of possible shots developed by Walt Disney Imagineering. Anjelica Huston was brought on to play the evil Supreme Leader in almost unrecognizable make-up. Because of its use of both 3D and in-theater effects (like smoke, lasers, and compressed air), Captain EO is considered the first theme-park “4D” film. It played from 1986 to 1994 and was brought back to Disneyland after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. You can watch a documentary about the making of Captain EO here.

5. Martin Scorsese

Most people know Michael Jackson’s “BAD” video as Jackson dancing around an abandoned parking lot with his West Side Story-type gang—because that was the version of the video that was played most on MTV. The full “BAD” video was directed in its entirety by Martin Scorsese and features a young Wesley Snipes. Jackson plays Darryl, a kid who just got back from an expensive private school and is hanging with his friends who are still partaking in urban petty crime. After a failed mugging on the subway, Darryl and his friend Mini Max (Snipes) argue about how Darryl isn’t “bad” anymore—cut to music video. The full video debuted on a CBS special on August 31, 1987.

6. David Fincher

The 1992 video for “Who Is It?” off Michael Jackson’s Dangerous is Fincher-esque in ways that wouldn’t be recognized as David Fincher hallmarks until over a decade later. The opening time-lapse of cityscapes echoes Panic Room, The Social Network, and House of Cards. The full version of the music video finds Jackson mistaking his girlfriend’s secret life as an escort for her cheating on him and hints at suicide at the end. It was a shocking enough video from Jackson that the original had to be released on VHS; the video that aired on TV in the U.S. was censored by editing in clips of past performances.

7. Spike Lee

Jackson and director Spike Lee connected on the social issues of the song “They Don’t Care About Us” off HIStory: Book 1. They planned a shoot in a Rio de Janeiro favela, but Brazilian state authorities attempted to block the video’s production. The Secretary of Industry, Commerce, and Tourism wanted final cut of the video, fearing media attention to the poverty of the favelas would hurt tourism. A judge blocked all filming, but his ruling was overturned by injunction, and Lee and Jackson were able to complete production. After the controversy, Jackson made an alternate video for the U.S. that featured him in a jail and alluded to human rights violations.

8. Stan Winston

Stan Winston, late special effects master and Pumpkinhead director, was at the helm of Jackson’s short film/music video "Ghosts" in 1996. Co-written by Stephen King, the film included dance sequences, ghost effects, and Jackson in a fat suit, and featured the songs “Ghosts,” “2 Bad,” and “Is It Scary” off the HIStory and Blood On The Dance Floor albums. The film runs 39 minutes and was screened out of competition at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.

9. Mark Romanek

After bad press from child abuse accusations in 1993, Jackson wrote the song “Scream” to address the media. Jackson usually conceptualized his own music videos, but he left the concept of “Scream” to director Mark Romanek, who was hot off the music videos for Nine Inch Nails' “Closer” and Madonna’s “Rain.” Romanek put Jackson and his sister Janet on a large spaceship with futuristic recreation rooms, and they perform as their vessel flees the pettiness of Earth.

10. Kenny Ortega

The director of Hocus Pocus and the High School Musical trilogy also helmed Jackson’s final on-screen effort, This Is It. A planned series of 50 concerts at London’s O2 Arena were never performed because of Jackson’s death, but Ortega had been documenting the making of the live show and managed to edit the footage together into a heartwarming film that served as a fitting farewell retrospective.

11. Barry Sonnenfeld

Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, and director Barry Sonnenfeld had a legitimate hit on their hands in 1997’s Men In Black. According to Smith, Jackson called him after seeing the movie and said it was one of the most creative things he’d ever seen. Jackson told Smith that if there was a part two, he wanted to be involved—it didn’t matter what character he played. Sonnenfeld wrote Jackson into the sequel as an alien agent.

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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