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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for PSIFF

10 Fascinating Facts About J.K. Simmons

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Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for PSIFF

Some people discovered J.K. Simmons through Oz, the gritty prison drama that put HBO on the map. Others noticed him in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), as the cigar-chomping J. Jonah Jameson. Still more discovered him only a few years ago, when he accepted an Oscar in 2015 for Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. But Simmons didn’t just materialize in the late 1990s. The 62-year-old character actor has been around for a decades—he was just delivering singing telegrams for part of that time. What else should you know about his life and career? Well for starters, here’s his real name …


J.K. Simmons was born Jonathan Kimble Simmons—“Kimble” being his mother’s maiden name. Simmons probably would’ve kept his original name, if it weren’t for some professional problems. The way he tells it, most variations of his name were already registered at the actors’ unions when he was starting his career. So he went with J.K., noting that he chose the moniker “well before Ms. Rowling had her Potter books.”


As a teenager growing up in Ohio, Simmons played football for several years. But his knees became a problem, so he switched high school cliques. “I went from being a jock to a hippie,” he told The Guardian. “It was a very clear-cut decision. I had to be one or the other. I had to forsake that other aspect of myself. Or I thought I had to, which is regrettable. Quickly, I was back in the pine tress with the hippies, listening to my Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.”


Simmons graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in music. His studies there included voice, composition, and conducting. While he ultimately moved away from music, this background served him well in his role as the sadistic conductor Terence Fletcher in Whiplash.


He might know his scales, but don’t ask Simmons to play through Beethoven’s symphonies. Apparently, he was never much of a musician. “I didn’t play anything worth a damn,” he joked to the Los Angeles Times. “I was a singer and a composer and a conductor. I played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on every instrument in the orchestra. Played none of them well. My kids both play piano a lot better than I do.”


Every actor takes odd jobs in the beginning, but Simmons took a job slightly odder than lifeguard or waiter. While he was living in Seattle after college, he worked for a company that provided singing telegrams. Simmons would get an address, grab a bunch of balloons, and then show up to sing the telegram … in a tutu. Simmons was one of several bearded or burly men who handled these “tutu-grams,” and you can check out his uniform in The Tonight Show clip above.


Simmons made his film debut in 1994's The Ref, seven years after losing a small role in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. Simmons was initially cast in a “featured part” in the 1987 ode to corporate greed. But he didn’t have any lines; he was just supposed to be “walking around naked or wearing a jock strap or something” in a locker room scene.

Unfortunately, Simmons never got his moment of jock strap glory. The filming schedule was pushed back repeatedly and when it finally came time to shoot, Simmons was locked into a play in Pittsburgh. He had to pass, but he did get his SAG card out of the whole fiasco.


When The Ref opened in 1994, Simmons was about 10 months shy of his 40th birthday. So where had he been for the past few decades? On the stage. Simmons was strictly a theater actor for much of his early career. After performing in regional and Off-Broadway productions, he made it onto the Great White Way in 1990 with A Change in the Heir. He continued on Broadway with revivals of Peter Pan and Guys & Dolls, plus Laughter on the 23rd Floor. But he slowly began experimenting with film and television roles, and once his two children were born, he abandoned the stage completely.

Now that his kids are preparing for college, he has hinted that he may return to his theatrical roots.


Simmons’s big break came with the early HBO show Oz, where he played the villainous Vern Schillinger for six seasons. Portraying this white supremacist wasn’t just emotionally grueling—it was downright dangerous. As Simmons recalled to Esquire, “On Oz one day, I got a chunk of camera embedded in my head and I was passed out on the floor geysering blood while the set medic stood over me, freaking out … I ended up going to the ER and getting nine stitches in my head—real Frankenstein stitches. When I went back to the set, they shot me from the other side for the day.”


Beginning with his role as the screaming boss BR in Thank You for Smoking and ending with his most recent part as Allison’s dad in Men, Women & Children, Simmons has acted in all six of Jason Reitman’s feature films (though only his voice appeared in Young Adult). To date, he is the only actor to do so. “He’s my muse,” Reitman told Variety. “Hitchcock had his blondes, and I have J.K. Simmons.”


Even if you haven’t seen Simmons’s movies, TV shows, or Farmers Insurance commercials, you’ve probably heard him. He has lent his voice to video game characters in Portal 2 and The Legend of Korra. More importantly, he has voiced the Yellow M&M since 1996.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.