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10 Fun Facts About Muppet Treasure Island

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By the time Muppet Treasure Island came along in 1996, five other adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island had already been made. Nevertheless, it’s notable for being the first adaptation to cast an amphibian as Captain Smollett—and the first to provoke a lawsuit from the makers of Spam.

1. WE COULD’VE GOTTEN A KING ARTHUR MOVIE INSTEAD.

After the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Jim Henson Productions decided to cast Kermit and friends in another period piece. “There were a whole bunch of ideas out there,” Kirk Thatcher, a writer who had worked with the company on the ambitious ABC sitcom Dinosaurs, said. Of those suggestions for a new Muppet flick, Thatcher's two favorites were “Treasure Island and a King Arthur story with medieval dragons and knights.” Once the former idea was chosen, Thatcher co-wrote the script alongside veteran Muppet performer Jerry Juhl and screenwriter James V. Hart.

2. ORIGINALLY, GONZO AND RIZZO WERE GOING TO BE THE LEADS.

The first draft split the Jim Hawkins character into two. “We had written Treasure Island with Gonzo and Rizzo as ‘Jim’ and ‘Hawkins,’” director Brian Henson recalled. “It never really worked, because, ultimately, Treasure Island is a story about a boy becoming a man. Kind of hard to do that with a rat and a whatever.” The reunified Jim Hawkins role was later claimed by the first actor who auditioned for it: teenager Kevin Bishop, in his feature film debut. Meanwhile, Gonzo and Rizzo were recast as his sidekicks.

3. TIM CURRY COPIED A FAMILY MEMBER’S VOICE WHILE PLAYING LONG JOHN SILVER.

“Well, certainly the inspiration for the way that [Long John Silver] sounds was my grandfather,” Curry revealed on the film’s DVD commentary. “Long John Silver talks exactly like [he] used to talk.”

4. FRANK OZ’S HECTIC SCHEDULE PRECLUDED HIM FROM PUPPETEERING MISS PIGGY AND FOZZIE BEAR.

Often described as Jim Henson’s “right-hand man,” puppetry maestro Frank Oz was an integral part of The Muppet Show. On that groundbreaking program, he originated Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and countless other characters. But a hectic schedule made it impossible for him to fully participate in Muppet Treasure Island. Though he voiced Fozzie and Miss Piggy, puppeteer Kevin Clash handled almost all of their physical movements.

5. OZ WASN’T (INITIALLY) A FAN OF THE RUNNING “MR. BIMBO” GAG.

Apparently, Frank Oz didn’t like all of the dialogue he was supposed to recite. Throughout Muppet Treasure Island, Squire Trelawney (a.k.a. Fozzie) converses with Mr. Bimbo—an imaginary friend who lives in his finger. According to Henson, he was told by Oz that “This joke will never work … I just don’t even get it, it’s such a stupid joke.” Nevertheless, he eventually warmed up to the gag and cited it as one of his favorite jokes in the film.

6. THE FILM’S MAIN SONGWRITERS ALSO CO-WROTE THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS’ “YOU’VE LOST THAT LOVIN’ FEELIN'.”

To create the film’s original songs, Henson tapped a couple of pop music legends: husband-and-wife composer Barry Mann and lyricist Cynthia Weil—a songwriting duo that has worked with artists from Tony Orlando to Dolly Parton. In 1964, they helped write The Righteous Brothers’ hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”—which Broadcast Music Incorporated has called the most-played song of the 20th century.   

7. THERE WAS AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT INVOLVING MOTION SICKNESS MEDICATION.

Many sequences were filmed on indoor boat sets. Beneath each one was a huge, custom-built gimbal rig. To simulate the motion of the ocean, powerful hydraulics would gently rock these vessels. This illusion worked, but the director was worried about potential side effects. “I thought people were going to get seasick,” Henson admitted on the DVD’s making-of documentary. So, before shooting Long John’s introductory scene, the director made everyone take anti-nausea pills. Alas, his cure backfired and the medication ended up triggering a drowsiness epidemic. “No one could stay awake—including Tim [Curry],” Henson explained. “I remember he looked at me at one point and said ‘I’m going to kill you.’” Once the effects of the medication wore off, the shoot continued as planned. 

8. THERE’S A SMALL NOD TO HENRY KISSINGER.

While searching for the treasure map in Billy Bones’ trunk, Gonzo and Rizzo happen upon a copy of Diplomacy. Written by Henry Kissinger in 1994, this bestselling book has been called “the seminal work” on international negotiation. As it happens, Alex Rockwell, who headed project development for Muppet Treasure Island, is his daughter-in-law.

9. PUBESCENT VOICE CRACKS COMPLICATED KEVIN BISHOP’S BIG SONG.

Jim Hawkins’ first number is “Something Better,” a hopeful song in which he, Gonzo, and Rizzo fantasize about seeing the world. During his audition, Bishop sang the song beautifully. However, as the actor told Den of Geek, his “voice had broken” by the time shooting began several months later. Thus, the filmmakers had no choice but to dub over Bishop with the recording from his aforementioned tryout.

10. THE CREATORS OF SPAM SUED THE FILMMAKERS.

Miss Piggy plays Benjamina Gunn, a tribal leader and (of course) Smollett/Kermit’s estranged girlfriend. Among her fellow residents on Treasure Island is a wild boar high priest—whose followers call him “Spa’am.” Get it? So did the Hormel Foods Corporation, the Minnesota-based makers of Spam, who claimed that Muppet Treasure Island had infringed on their trademark. As such, the company wasted no time in suing Jim Henson Productions.

Reporters soon nicknamed the odd trial “Spam v. Spa’am.” Hormel’s legal team accused Henson of “intentionally [portraying] the Spa’am character to be evil in porcine form.” Moreover, it was feared that the “nasty pagan brute” might harm canned meat sales. Ultimately, the court ruled in Henson’s favor. “One might think,” opined the appeals court, “that Hormel would welcome the association with a genuine source of pork.”

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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