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robatsea2009 via YouTube

A Slick History of the Ice Capades

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robatsea2009 via YouTube

John Harris, the slick and successful heir to his father’s multi-tiered entertainment business, thought he knew what would bolster his hockey business during the Great Depression. Between periods during pro games being played at his Pittsburgh arena, Harris would invite Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie to the ice. Henie would perform flawless skating maneuvers, giving the impoverished crowd more for their money.

By 1940, Harris had expanded on the idea: Instead of filling time between periods, he launched a plan to have skaters like Henie occupy the arena during the entire hockey off-season, wowing crowds with on-ice narratives, juggling, music, and expressive routines. Together with nine other arena managers, Harris formed the Ice Capades. Over the next six decades, the revue would tour the country, popularize ice skating, and make Harris a very rich man. It would even strike a deal with Disney to equip the company’s library of characters with skates—a move that would eventually prove to be the beginning of the end.

Toronto History via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Born in 1898, Harris had slowly peeled himself away from his father’s financial interests in movie theaters and other attractions to focus almost exclusively on Duquesne Gardens, the Pittsburgh-area arena where he held rodeos, hockey games, boxing matches, and other spectator events. When he saw the success of his halftime skate show, he quickly began arranging for a touring company to take the idea to the next level.

Installing Olympic trainer Rosemary Stewart to advise recruits, Harris enlisted 150 performers. There were some curious mandates: Harris insisted that no woman be under 5-foot-1 or over 5-foot-5; the skaters would live and travel under the guidance of chaperones and a nurse; they'd be paid $65 a week, but would be responsible for maintaining their costumes, which could cost $450. (A skater was once docked a week’s pay for daring to sit down in her elaborate outfit.)

The Ice Capades turned a paltry $174 profit in 1940, but word spread and the tour caught on. Harris enlisted acts like Trixie the Juggler, who could skate without dropping a ball, to join his regular stable of performers. There were adaptations of Broadway plays and elaborate skating numbers. Harris wanted the event to feel like a Broadway show-stopper, only on skates. By the 1950s, the show was so popular that it dragged portable ice makers to baseball stadiums and other rink-less places in order to create a skating surface on which to perform.

Donna Atwood, who was just 15 years old when she joined the show in 1942, quickly became the Ice Capades's biggest star (and eventually Harris's wife). She toured with the show for 17 years, becoming such a celebrity that newspapers were able to report the pending births of her children by writing only that “Donna” was expecting. No last name was needed. Atwood even modeled for Disney animators for the sequence in 1942’s Bambi where Bambi and Thumper tumble on a frozen lake.

Disney’s official link to the Ice Capades began several years later, in 1949, when the two companies agreed to feature licensed Disney characters and stories in Ice Capades shows. With costumes shaped more for practicality on the ice than fidelity to their likenesses, characters like Mickey Mouse could sometimes be hard to recognize, but the relationship was a success. Disney featured in Ice Capades shows through 1966. (In 1969, when Disney launched its own stage tour, critics sardonically dubbed it “Disney on Wood.”)

BlueBearsLanl via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

By that point, Harris had already sold his interest in the revue for $5.5 million. Increasingly, the Ice Capades had turned to the skill and celebrity of Olympic figure skaters looking for a second act following medal wins in competition. Dorothy Hamill, the breakout star of the 1976 Winter Olympics, signed with them; Peggy Fleming opted to join up with the Ice Follies, a rival show. Owing to nervousness, Hamill fell twice during her Ice Capades debut.

“It was worse than the Olympics,” Hamill told the press, citing anxiety over her performance as the reason for her tumbles. But Hamill became as closely identified with the show as Atwood once had been, and the Ice Capades created a venue for athletes to parlay their Olympic notoriety into something more.

By the end of the 1980s, the Ice Capades were wearing thin. Following Hamill’s lead, Olympic stars like Scott Hamilton signed with other promotions, weakening the show's core cast. Disney, meanwhile, had debuted its own Disney on Ice tour in 1981, which captivated kids with recognizable characters (and is still going strong). More importantly, Americans had learned—through shows like Ice Capades—of the athleticism and talent of figure skaters. Once a marginal sport, it became one of the key attractions of the Winter Games.

Although Hamill was no longer in her athletic prime, she still felt she had plenty to offer the stage show. In 1993, she, her husband, and a business partner bought the Ice Capades and pulled it from the brink of bankruptcy. Hamill’s intention was to evolve from the anthology-style revue of old to telling complete stories. Cinderella would be her first production. It would also be one of her last.

In less than a year, Hamill—who suffered a broken rib in 1994 when her Prince grabbed her too strongly in a waltz—sold the floundering company to televangelist Pat Robertson’s International Family Entertainment. By 1997, funding had dried up and two tours were canceled. In an era of cable television and the real-life skating drama of the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding feud, the public appetite for professional figure skating had diminished beyond repair. What was left was taken by Disney, which could offer everything from the California Raisins to Donald Duck gliding across the ice.

“I try not to think of the Disney shows as competition," Hamill said in 1994, just before the sale. "They're different from us. We don't have skaters in big suits. Besides, the Walt Disney people have been very nice to us. When we were out in Anaheim to perform at The Pond, they gave me the keys to Toontown."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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