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10 Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah Facts About Song of the South

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You’ve probably never seen Song of the South, but you’ve likely had its most famous song lodged firmly in your brain at one point or another. Let's take a closer look at what is arguably Disney’s most controversial production ever, which was released 70 years ago.

1. THE STORIES WERE WRITTEN BY TEDDY ROOSEVELT'S UNCLE.

Though Disney borrowed the Br’er Rabbit tales from author Joel Chandler Harris, the stories were originally published in Harper’s magazine as written by Robert Roosevelt, Teddy’s uncle. In his autobiography, Teddy wrote that Robert took the stories down from his Aunt Anna’s dictation, then sent them to Harper’s, where they “fell flat.” It wasn’t until Harris created the Uncle Remus stories that Br’er Rabbit and his pals became “immortal,” in Teddy’s words.

2. DISNEY’S DECISION TO MAKE SONG OF THE SOUTH RAISED EYEBROWS RIGHT FROM THE GET-GO.

The NAACP released a statement that said that while the artistic and technical aspects of the film were truly impressive, “the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery ... [the film] unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” However, other reviewers thought that the issue was handled well. Even the actors defended their parts. Hattie McDaniel told The Criterion, "If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people I would not have appeared therein." Star James Baskett agreed, saying, "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the Song of the South."

3. IT’S BEEN RUMORED THAT JAMES BASKETT DIDN’T ATTEND THE PREMIERE BECAUSE NO HOTEL WOULD ALLOW HIM TO STAY.

It’s been a long-standing rumor that Baskett himself was unable to attend the movie’s Atlanta premiere because no hotel in town would accept the black cast members. This is unlikely, as MousePlanet points out, because there were several black-owned hotels in the city at the time, including the Savoy. What is true is that Atlanta was still under segregation laws at the time, so the cast would have been separated at the premiere anyway. To bring Baskett to the city but stop him from attending events, one newspaper article from 1946 noted, “would cause him many embarrassments, for his feelings are the same as any man’s.”

4. THE FILM WAS A SUCCESS, BUT NOT BY A WIDE MARGIN.

The original release netted the studio just $226,000.

5. WALT DISNEY HIMSELF CAMPAIGNED FOR BASKETT TO WIN AN ACADEMY AWARD FOR HIS PERFORMANCE.

Walt Disney told Jean Hersholt, then the president of the Motion Picture Academy, that Baskett’s performance was his own creation, “almost wholly without direction.” Disney’s efforts worked: Baskett received an honorary Oscar in 1948. Sadly, he died just three months later at the age of 44.

6. BASKETT’S HONORARY ACADEMY AWARD ISN’T THE ONLY ONE SONG OF THE SOUTH WON.

“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” also won the Oscar for Best Original Song.

7. BASKETT PLAYED TWO MAJOR PARTS.

Baskett not only played Uncle Remus, he also voiced Br’er Fox.

8. THE MOVIE HAS NEVER OFFICIALLY BEEN RELEASED ON HOME VIDEO.

Though the film has been reissued several times, including a “re-premiere” that was held in Atlanta for the 40th anniversary in 1986, it has never been released on home video in the United States. Whether there are future plans for a release remains to be seen. While Disney CEO Robert Iger has called the movie “antiquated” and “fairly offensive,” fans have been rallying for years to get it released. Enterprising consumers can find copies that were released in Japan and Europe. You can also see part of it right here:

9. DISNEY CREATED A COMIC STRIP AS A PROMOTIONAL TOOL.

The Disney Company created a newspaper comic strip about Br’er Rabbit to help promote the movie. It actually ended up with a longer shelf life than the movie itself: the strip ran from 1945 through 1972.

10. CONTEMPORARY VERSIONS OF BR’ER RABBIT AND BR’ER FOX ARE VOICED BY JESS HARNELL.

These days, Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox are voiced by Jess Harnell, also known for providing the voices for Wakko on Animaniacs and Cedric on Sofia the First, among other things. Though Br’ers Fox and Rabbit don’t get used much, they have popped up in video games, amusement park rides, and the occasional cartoon where Disney characters mingle.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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