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Interview with Trace Beaulieu of MST3K and Cinematic Titanic

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The conclusion to our two-part exclusive interview with Trace Beaulieu, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and now with Cinematic Titanic

Read yesterday's part one here.

Crow T. Robot enjoying the latest issue of mental_floss magazine

Trace Beaulieu's older brother, Bryan, built a special house back in 2005. In fact, it's the only one of its kind in the United States.

Kara Kovalchik: Your brother designed and built a very Earth-friendly hydrogen-powered house in Arizona. What can you tell us about it?

Trace Beaulieu: I don't know a lot about the ins and outs of it. Solar panels... I think it was meant to have a hydrogen generator, but, it's very unique. He was trying a lot of different systems on this house. Kind of an experiment. Just a really interesting project. If you go online, you can see pictures of it. I've been there, but I'm not a desert person. I'm more of a water person. Bryan loves that area. He was going out there quite a bit, and just fell in love with it.

KK: So you prefer Minnesota?

TB: Yes. I missed the lakes. I'm heading back there in a couple of hours. We're pretty rural, about an hour east of Minneapolis, right on the Wisconsin/Minnesota border.

KK: And your wife helps you there with fulfilling Cinematic Titanic orders?

TB: Yes! She's also been home taking care of our chickens. We have about eight of them. They're egg-layers. We're not gonna eat them.

KK: Although your characters sometimes lapse into the typical Minnesota accent, you don't seem to have one yourself, even though you grew up in Minneapolis. Why is that?

TB: I don't know what happened to it. I may have consciously tried to not do the Minnesota thing. It leaks through occasionally. We pull it out quite a bit [for the show].

KK: Have you ever seen the huge twine ball?

TB: (laughs) I have, yes. I know where it is.

Beaulieu as mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester on MST3K.

Cinematic Titanic includes the talents of several MST3K alumni: Joel Hodgson (Joel Robinson); Frank Conniff (TV's Frank); J. Elvis Weinstein (Clayton's assistant Dr. Erhardt and the first Tom Servo); and Mary Jo Pehl (as Pearl Forrester). All served as performers and writers on the show.

KK: Does each writer perform his or her own jokes during the show?

TB: No, the lines get divided up and then get assigned based on who would pull the line off the best. Sometimes we get our own lines, and sometimes we get others', and it's a big blend of voices that way.

KK: The Cinematic Titanic show used to employ silhouettes that were different than the classic MST3K ones. Do you still use those?

TB: It's just us on stage with iPads with our scripts on them, and some music stands.

KK: Wow, not even paper scripts?

TB: We can carry every movie we've written with us now. In some theaters, it's "audience choice," so we might not know which film we're going to do until a few days before. And we don't have to carry three-ring binders with us, or a filing cabinet of scripts. Now, we hit the ground very lean and mean. We've got our movies on hard drives, and our scripts on iPads, and we're very modern!

In contrast to so many 1990s comedy shows that went well into "dirty humor," like South Park and Beavis & Butthead, Mystery Science Theater 3000 always kept its foot planted just this side of rudeness. This decision, which continues with Cinematic Titanic, allows the group to attract audience members of a surprisingly young age.

KK: In some cities, you're riffing on two different films in an early and late show. Should we expect more bawdy humor further into the evening?

TB: We try to stay in a PG-13 range. Sometimes, we'll get excited and stray over. We'll "cross the blue line," as they say in hockey. But the second movie we're doing, Doomsday Machine, has got more adult themes within it, so... Still, we still have little kids come to the show.

KK: So it's safe for youngsters?

TB: I would say that it's a parenting decision. If you know your kids well enough, and they can handle it... A friend of mine brought his young daughter to our show in Davis, California, and he asked her very thoughtful questions beforehand. She's a very bright kid. Most of these kids that are into MST are pretty bright, and pretty worldly, too.

KK: Speaking of kids, on MST3K, it always surprised me that so many of the fan letters Joel read were from little kids who'd draw the robots with crayon. It seemed like the humor would be beyond them. What was that like?

TB: It was terrific. I mean, for a show that we thought would just go away, to still be around after 20 years and to still be garnering some young fans...

KK: That has to feel good.

TB: It does. Not all of us are getting paid for those MST episodes anymore, but (pause) our karma bank account is quite healthy. We're also lucky in that it doesn't affect our lives all that much. We can walk around in normal life, and if I'm not dressed as Lincoln or Dr. Forrester... We're famous in the building that we're performing in, but as soon as we hit the door, we're just folks.

For sale at the show, and available at tracebeaulieu.com, is one of Beaulieu's newest ventures, a book of children's poetry titled Silly Rhymes for Belligerent Children.

KK: Tell us about the book.

TB: That was a great deal of fun. About half of those poems were just lying around in the drawer. And I contacted [zombie artist] Len Peralta to do the illustrations. I really wanted to work with him. There was another book I had approached him to do, but then I thought, "Let's see how we work together." I fleshed out the other half of the book and Len did these fantastic illustrations. And it's been so much fun.

KK: Will we get a preview at the Cinematic Titanic show?

TB: Sure, I'll read them on stage. Mary Jo and I have done book readings together, since she's got a book too. And it's just been a lot of fun. There'll be copies for sale at the show.

KK: It's something you published yourself?

TB: Yes. It's a real mom-and-pop kind of publishing venture. Like anything else I've done, I'm more of a "Let's just do it!" attitude. And everyone would say, "Oh, publishers aren't buying that kind of book." And I'm like, "Well, I just want people to buy it."

KK: A lot of people are selling millions of copies of self-publishing books.

TB: Yeah, and I'm selling hundreds! (laughs) One day, it'll grow, but I'm very happy with the response it's gotten. It's earned great reviews, and people are finding it on its own just like how MST grew. That was something we just did instead of selling it to somebody. We could never have sold that to somebody. Some concepts are just too hard to sell.

As if performing live, building sets, raising chickens, and writing books weren't enough, Beaulieu also creates his own pieces of art. He hopes to display and offer a selection of found art works and sculptures, when he can find the time.

KK: So you're still into creating art from found objects?

TB: Yes, I am. I just got my studio back in shape to be able to work in it, so, what I need to do is get them up on my Web site. I'm terrible at that kind of thing. We spend all our time doing fulfillment. Katy, my wife, is embroiled with Cinematic Titanic. That's all we do!

KK: Do you just want to make art, or is it a business for you?

TB: I have sold some pieces. I had an art show when I was living in Los Angeles eight years ago. Now, it's just I make it for my own pleasure, and I don't ever have it any of it on display. It's all in boxes. I need to get it up on the Web site. It's stuff that people really need to see in person, though. Maybe this'll be all be found after I'm gone.

KK: Aw, don't say that.

TB: The stuff I do is really kinda tech-looking, if I can use that word in the four-letter form.

KK: I read that your dad once brought you a champagne basket that he'd found on the roadside.

TB: Yeah. I had people for a long time finding things that had been smashed on the road. My niece still does that. She lives in California, now, and she'll come back and say "Hey, I found this on the ground, and I thought of you." Maybe this is the motivation I need to get that stuff on the Web, although it's much better to view it in person.

Cinematic Titanic is scheduled to perform in Royal Oak, Michigan (outside of Detroit), on Saturday, February 25. They'll be showing Astral Factor at 7pm, and Doomsday Machine at 10. Visit cinematictitanic.com for more details.

KK: Tell us more about the show.

TB: Dave (Gruber) Allen does the opening act, and we invade his space to do a little bit of our own shtick. Depending on who's available and who's at the show, sometimes we have guests drop in. I don't think we'll have any in Michigan, but Dave is great himself. He anchors the show. You might remember him from Freaks & Geeks [as guidance counselor Jeff Rosso].

KK: Does anything fun happen before or after the shows?

TB: Merchandise will be available, and we'll meet fans. We do a short meet-and-greet between shows, but the staff needs to turn over the theater. So we ask that if you're going to both shows or just the second show, that you come to the second meet-and-greet afterwards. That would be best, so we can meet more people. But as long as people are there, we'll be there.

KK: I would imagine people would be there all night. Don't fans throw themselves in front of your tour bus like they do for rock singers?

TB: We have a bad tour bus driver. They're not throwing themselves; he's just a bad driver.

KK: Trace, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me, and good luck with Cinematic Titanic.

TB: This was fun! Thanks.

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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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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.

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