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A Brief History of "Battle of the Network Stars"

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Television viewers of the late 1970s who craved a combination of amateur athletics plus celebrity skin (mixed together with more cheese than a Wisconsin souvenir shop) had to look no further than Battle of the Network Stars. Inspired somewhat by ABC’s popular Wide World of Sports Superstars—an annual competition of professional athletes competing in a series of 10 different events unrelated to their own sport—the network set up a bi-annual “sporting” competition between various actors from series on the three major networks. The first installment aired in 1976 and garnered enough of a following that the series continued until 1985.

As the stars of Welcome Back, KotterCHiPsHappy Days and other hits of the day fought it out in relay races, the obstacle course, the dunk tank, and Simon Says, veteran sportscaster Howard Cosell provided color commentary with the gravity usually reserved for an Ali-Frazier prize fight. But why would a TV star participate in such a spectacle, risking injury and mussed hair during their hiatus? One answer might be that they embraced the human drama of athletic competition. Another might be that this was a time when episodic television didn't have million-dollar salaries, and Battle offered some nice prize money: Each member of the winning team on the debut episode collected $20,000 (the Pittsburgh Steelers only earned $15,000 each for winning the Super Bowl that year). Join us, won’t you, for the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the political incorrectness of the era, and some gratuitous swimsuit shots….

I Protest!

There was dissent in the ranks from the get-go. CBS team captain Telly Savalas (puffing away on a cigarette during an athletic competition, no less) raised a protest after the relay race. It seems that Ben Murphy (Gemini Man, better known for the “Riding with Death” episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000) stepped off of his line and accepted the baton several yards too soon from a struggling Joanna Pettet (Captains and the Kings). This was a “vulgar” and “flagrant” violation of the rules, according to Savalas, who points out that his Greek heritage makes him an expert on such things. NBC captain Robert “Go Ahead, I Dare Ya” Conrad is having none of it and challenges ABC captain Gabe Kaplan to a 100 yard run-off. Forget the 1984 Olympic boycott, this is sports tension at its finest, with Conrad threatening to pull his team from the competition amid a flurry of jaw-dropping ethnic remarks that would never get past the network censors today.

Freestyle or Breaststroke?

Adrienne Barbeau and Lynda Carter were a little nervous—but buoyant with hope—as they stepped onto the starting blocks for the swimming competition. Once they hit the water they lost that deer-in-the-headlights look and went for the jugular. Perhaps it was a little tit-for-tat after that contentious relay race, but it was clear that neither woman wanted to settle for the booby prize. Luckily they had plenty of support—just listen to those “yahoos!” from the hooters and hollerers in the audience!

What It Was, Was Football

Not to say that any of the other contests were necessarily frivolous, but one event that was played very seriously was the 3-on-3 football competition. Maybe it was because many of the male TV actors had played some ball back in the day and were eager to relive their wonder years. Whatever the reason, the men actually took the time to plan some game strategy and play with the fervor of old college pals engaging in a “friendly” competition at a reunion. Just watch Richard Hatch (the Battlestar Gallactica guy, not the Survivor guy) and Joseph Bottoms risk injury while making some very dramatic catches in this clip and see if they’re not envisioning themselves on the gridiron at the Rose Bowl.

“High and Dry, I Need a Ball Player…”

Believe it or not, the Dunk Tank was an actual “athletic” event in BOTNS. Athletic is in quotation marks because there was some controversy as to the accuracy of the dunking mechanism. Skeptical TV viewers noted that the more comely the dunkee, the less accurate the dunker had to be when hitting the target. Notice how a pre-Mad About You Helen Hunt barely nicks the target but yet manages to send hunky Dean Butler swimming.

Meanwhile, Tom Selleck takes entirely too long to strip down to his swimsuit. (Preen much?) And Judy Norton-Taylor (eldest Waltons daughter) boasts some impressive biceps that even Michelle Obama would envy.

Let No Obstacle Block Your Path

Much like on sister show The Superstars, the Obstacle Course was a fan favorite and a deal-breaker for the competitors involved here. Younger stars like Scott Baio and Kristy McNichol seemed to have an obvious advantage, but when similarly-aged celebs like Melissa Gilbert placed further back in the standings than actors twice their age, it gave viewers hope. Maybe youth wasn’t the be-all, end-all when it came to physical fitness…Perhaps if we elder statesmen watched our diet and exercised regularly we could compete with the best of them…  Before you run off to the gym, here is Kristy versus Melissa:

Billy Crystal versus David Letterman:

And Penny Marshall versus Mackenzie Phillips:

For All the Marbles

The ultimate, decision-making event on BOTNS was the Tug of War. After all the preliminary competitions, the two teams with the most points went on to compete in this final event. The captain of each team decided who would play and in which order on the rope (there was a maximum weight limit of 900 lbs. on each side). Watch the fierceness of play involved in this event and you’ll see that tug of war can actually be dangerous (there have been contests in the past where players have lost a finger or two during play), which is why it has been banned as an event in many professional competitions.

If you’ve ever watched Battle of the Network Stars, here is the place to share your memories. If you’ve never seen this show (or even if you have), what current TV stars would you like to see pitted against one another in sweaty, bouncy athletic competition?

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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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