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A Brief History of the Jerry Lewis Telethon

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The National Muscular Dystrophy Association announced that in 2011, for the first time since 1966, Jerry Lewis would not be headlining the annual MDA Telethon for "Jerry's Kids." After earning more than $2 billion, the show was going on without him. Here's a look back at the origin of the telethon, some of the highlights, and what might have inspired Jerry to get involved.


TV's first telethon took place in 1949. It was New York's Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund Telethon, hosted by Milton Berle. One of the guests on that very first telethon was a brash young comedian who appeared with his singing partner, Dean Martin. The young comic was, of course, Jerry Lewis. At the time, Martin and Lewis were the hottest act in all of show biz.

The comedy team later made an appearance at the 1952 Olympic Fund Telethon, hosted by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. There is surviving footage of this appearance by Martin and Lewis, and they are uninhibited, wild, and electric. Incredibly, when Martin and Lewis come on stage, Bing Crosby rushes off in fear. Crosby was terrified Lewis would pull off Crosby's toupee (!), and he never did reappear while the boys were on.

In the early 1950s, Lewis was asked to host a telethon for a little-known disease called muscular dystrophy. Lewis accepted and, together with Martin, put on the very first MD telethon.

The two hosted other telethons together until their split as a team in 1956. Martin went on to other things, but Lewis never stopped. Over the years, he hosted several other 4-hour MD telethons sans Martin, much shorter than the almost 24-hour telethons to which we've become accustomed.

The First Jerry Lewis Labor Day Weekend Telethon

In 1966, the first official Jerry Lewis Telethon for muscular dystrophy took place over the Labor Day weekend, broadcast from the Americana Hotel in New York. Some were skeptical about the success of the undertaking, as many people were not home on Labor Day. But surprisingly, the telethon was a huge success, raising just over one million dollars.

Big Spenders

Jerry Lewis's annual Labor Day telethons went on to raise more than 2 billion dollars in donations to fight muscular dystrophy. Lewis claimed his goal each year was to get "one dollar more" than the previous year. The biggest single donations over the years have come from the Firefighters Association, who have given more than $250,000 to the cause.

Nothing has hurt Lewis more than accusations that he has pocketed some of the donated money himself. He vigorously denies this claim, and he even swears he has given $7 million out of his own pocket to the cause. He has been accused--including by some who are stricken with MD--of exploiting his "kids," portraying them as pitiable victims who just need a big charity to take care of or cure them. Lewis has fought back against these charges, too.

Celebrity Guest Stars

Many of the biggest celebrities in show business have either hosted or appeared on Lewis's telethons over the years, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and three of the Beatles. (In John Lennon's appearance with wife Yoko Ono, he stated, "Jerry is one of our favorite comedians.") The ultra-reclusive Joe DiMaggio came on to answer the phones one year, and even a U.S. President--Ronald Reagan--made an appearance.

But the all-time highlight in telethon history was unequivocally the reunion of Jerry Lewis with his former partner Dean Martin in 1976, staged by their mutual friend Frank Sinatra. It was an incredible moment in television history, being Martin and Lewis's first public appearance together in 20 years. The two tearfully hugged, kidded around, and cracked a few one-liners before Martin and Sinatra sang, after which Martin disappeared with a wave and a friendly "Ciao!"

Lewis has always worn his heart on his sleeve regarding his deep affection for his former partner, while Martin was always "Mr. Macho" and rarely displayed any kind of emotion in public. But if you watch the video, you will see Martin quickly sneak in a brief kiss on Lewis's cheek as they hug. (I've always felt this quick kiss was very telling about Martin's real affinity for his erstwhile partner.)

Why Did He Do It?

One of the biggest mysteries of all regarding his unceasing dedication to the Muscular Dystrophy Association is, "Why does Jerry do it?" Oddly, Lewis has never revealed to anyone the exact reason. While no one may ever know the real reason, a little-known story about Lewis is very telling.

When he was two years old, Lewis developed a strange and potentially crippling disease. According to Lewis, his beloved grandmother nursed him and, although a very strict Jew, cooked him bacon and "crammed it into his mouth" to help fight off the impending sickness. What potential disease it was we have no idea, but Lewis has stated this story is true. If so, the frightening memory of a debilitating disease may have had at least some impact on his tireless work in his fight against muscular dystrophy.

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