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joesmedia2012 via eBay

Spacewreck: The Captain EO Story

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joesmedia2012 via eBay

After months of production delays and millions of dollars spent covering budget overruns, the film editors working on the "4D" Disney theme park attraction dubbed Captain EO began to get frantic feedback from company executives who had seen some of the film's early footage: Michael Jackson was grabbing his crotch way too often.

The star of EO, Jackson was just three years removed from one of the biggest albums in music history, 1982’s Thriller. Disney had approached him with the idea of helping to create an exclusive, ambitious film with in-theater effects like fog and lasers that could be experienced only in Disney-branded theme parks. With the assistance of George Lucas, the production had created a 17-minute space musical, nearly seven minutes of which featured Jackson performing while frequently putting his hands in places Disney would never approve of.

The footage was zoomed, edited, or clipped to remove the gestures. But a bigger problem remained: Would enough people show up to justify Disney’s $20 million investment—on a per-minute basis, the most expensive film ever made at the time?

Meredith P. via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Disney of today is a monolithic enterprise, one that seems to be able to print money as quickly and easily as the U.S. Treasury. They own a sizable portion of pop culture’s most appealing brands—Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars—and reap billions from merchandising and films.

But the Disney of the 1980s was operating under markedly different circumstances. It would be years before their animated films experienced a resurgence, first with 1989's The Little Mermaid, and decades before they began to acquire other character libraries. One of their largest assets of the era was their theme park division—Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with a satellite park in Tokyo and one planned for Paris. The continued success of those parks was crucial to their business as a whole.

In 1984, newly installed Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided to pursue an attraction that would blend Disney’s resources in both live entertainment and film. His idea was to approach Michael Jackson, a recording artist who was arguably the most famous entertainer in the world at the time. Jackson’s second solo album, Thriller, had been released in two years prior and went on to sell 30 million copies in the U.S. alone. With director John Landis, he had proven himself to be a master of the music video form with an elaborate mini-movie of the title track. Most importantly, Jackson was a tremendous fan of Disney, often visiting their parks in disguise so he could enjoy the rides without being solicited by fans. He traveled there so often he bought his own private suite at Disney World.

Eisner asked Jackson if he’d be interested in appearing in a short film shot in 3D and accompanied by lights, smoke, lasers, and other sensory effects that would be accomplished live in the theater. He also assured Jackson that the production would be overseen by George Lucas, the filmmaker behind Star Wars, who had a working relationship with Eisner thanks to the numerous park attractions based on his space saga.

Jackson was enthusiastic for two reasons: He loved Disney, and he was eager to explore acting. He agreed to star in the project and provide the original music if Eisner could convince Steven Spielberg to direct it.

Eisner couldn’t; Spielberg’s schedule didn’t allow for it. But he and Lucas did enlist Francis Ford Coppola, the Oscar-winning director of the Godfather films. While Coppola didn't usually go for elaborate, effects-heavy fantasy flicks, he and Lucas were close friends; he also perceived EO to be a possible way of rebounding from various setbacks he had suffered early in the decade. Films like The Cotton Club had put his production company, American Zoetrope, in financial turbulence.

With Lucas, Coppola, and Jackson in place, four of Disney’s brainstorming Imagineer employees were asked to come up with a premise that incorporated music, outer space, and 3D effects. The result was The Intergalactic Music Man, a parable about an interstellar performer who can "heal" distressed civilizations with song. That morphed into Space Knights, which kept the weaponized music angle but was less of a fantasy.

After the Imagineers pitched Eisner, Lucas, and Jackson, the story settled into a kind of space saga that would feature Jackson as the captain of a starship that harbored alien life forms, including a flatulent, elephant-snouted creature named Hooter. When they crash-land on a planet ruled by an evil queen, Jackson’s performance art helps to break her influence over the population. It was Coppola who suggested the title be changed to Captain EO, after the Greek word eos, or "dawn."

Captain EO began production in the summer of 1985 and was conceived as a 12-minute film with a budget of $11 million. As the production dragged on, it became apparent that was an absurdly optimistic figure. Disney believed Lucas would help keep the film on schedule, but his work prepping Howard the Duck and various Lucasfilm projects meant he only checked in periodically. Coppola and his director of photography also had no experience shooting footage in 3D, which required deliberate lighting and camera set-ups. Learning on the job led to overruns, which Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to control. But Coppola found an ally in Lucas, who wasn't involved in day-to-day decisions but backed extravagant spending on things like the installation of a giant gimbal that could shake the spaceship set on command.

The problem grew larger after principal photography had finished. The planned 40 effects shots grew to 140; editors spent time avoiding Jackson making any dance gestures parents visiting the park would find objectionable; the Magic Eye Theater, which was being constructed to incorporate the live effects, suffered from delays. Executives even toyed with modulating Jackson’s speaking voice, since they considered it too high-pitched. (Since no one wanted to confront the issue with Jackson directly, the concern was dropped.)

Originally planned for a spring 1986 launch, EO was pushed to September. In the industry, the soaring budget, nine-month post-production schedule, and number of high-ranking entertainment names involved led to a new working title. In Hollywood, the lavish effects film was being referred to as "Captain Ego."

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With a minimum of $20 million spent on the production, there was little point in sparing any expense for the premiere of Captain EO on September 13, 1986. Disney hosted a screening at Epcot Center in Orlando, inviting the film’s stars and other celebrities. Anjelica Huston, who played the Supreme Leader in the film, rode in a motorcade with her then-partner Jack Nicholson and waved to park guests; Lucas put in an appearance. Jackson’s sisters La Toya and Janet were also photographed at the event, along with Dolph Lundgren and O.J. Simpson.

Curiously, Jackson himself was nowhere to be found. Eisner joked he was probably there in disguise "as an old lady"—something Jackson had actually done at one point in order to meet with the Imagineering team without drawing attention. But the more likely explanation was that Jackson had been embarrassed by the reaction to pictures of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, a publicity stunt he had orchestrated earlier that week that had gotten negative attention.

If the crowd was bummed by Jackson’s absence, they didn’t take it out on the film. Using fog machines, twin 70 mm film projectors, and 3D glasses for dramatic effect, EO debuted to hugely positive reviews from those in attendance and grossed an estimated $2 million its first weekend, confirming Eisner’s theory that original theme park attractions would help populate their front gates. In one poll, 93 percent of attendees listed EO as a main reason for wanting to visit.

 
Captain EO ran at Epcot until 1994 and in Anaheim until 1997, when it was replaced by a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids attraction. In 2010, the Disney parks revived the film following the outpouring of sentiment that accompanied Jackson’s death the previous summer. It ran until December 2015, at which point Disney announced it would be closing the attraction for good.

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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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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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