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Confessions of a TV-holic: 5 Cases of Unwanted Fame

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Actors are a mercurial bunch, to say the least. They can land a career-making role, only to spend the rest of their lives complaining about it. A few cases in point:

1. The guy who didn't want to be Mike Brady

Robert ReedBrady Bunch dad Robert Reed had been was a thorn in producer Sherwood Schwartz's side since Day One. He always maintained that he'd only signed his Brady Bunch contract because the pilot was lame and it wouldn't get picked up as a series. The show had also been described to him as a serious look at blended families. Instead, the serious dramatic actor who'd trained at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts found himself "trapped on Gilligan's Island with kids."

2. A very reluctant Radar

Gary BurghoffGary Burghoff appeared as Corporal Walter "Radar" O'Reilly in every episode of the first three seasons of M*A*S*H. By season four, he was disenchanted with the direction his character was taking. He'd started out as crafty and sneaky, and not averse to helping himself to Colonel Blake's brandy. But the writers eventually turned him into a naïve farm boy who never sipped anything stronger than a Grape Nehi. Burghoff only appeared in about half the episodes over the next three seasons, and the CBS brass convinced him to stay long enough to play the focus of a two-part send-off during sweeps week in season eight. M*A*S*H writer Ken Levine notes that Burghoff partially expressed his disenchantment during his last appearance by refusing to wear his "Radar hat" during those final episodes, making him look less like the twenty-something company clerk he was playing and more like the balding, middle-aged man he was.

Gilligan's Island, Good Times and more all after the jump...

3. A Prayer for Mrs. Kotter

Marcis StrassmanMarcia Strassman landed a plum role as Mrs. Kotter on the hit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, but she wasn't happy about it. "Every day I pray for cancellation," she moaned in several interviews at the time. While some of us would shrug and think "a paycheck is a paycheck," Strassman made it clear that smiling indulgently while Gabe Kaplan droned on about his great-uncle Schlomo and saying "Then what happened?" didn't satisfy her artistic needs. Ironically, series star and co-creator Kaplan left after the third season, making Strassman the de facto star of the show. Such was her drawing power that Kotter was canceled promptly after season four.

4. Bad times on Good Times

John AmosWhen Good Times premiered in 1974 (as a spin-off of Maude), it was the first sitcom to attempt to portray a realistic nuclear African-American family. Despite struggling financially, James and Florida Evans remained wise, loving parents who brought their children up with strong family values. John Amos portrayed the patriarch, a proud man who refused handouts and worked hard to support his family. But shortly after the series premiered, the producers noticed that Jimmie "J.J." Walker received the biggest audience reaction and the most fan mail. The writers quickly took the focus off the elder Evans and made J.J. the star of the show, and the plots became more outrageous and unbelievable. Amos was unhappy with the new direction of the show, and described Walker's pop-eyed, grinning character in the press as a "minstrel show." Not surprisingly, Amos' contract was not renewed, and his character was killed in an off-camera automobile accident.

5. The castaway who wanted off the Island

Tina LouiseWhen Tina Louise signed on to play Ginger Grant on Gilligan's Island, she was under the impression that the series was going to be about the trials and tribulations of an actress stranded on a desert island, and that the show would revolve around her character. (I suppose we could pick a nit and wonder if the show's title didn't somehow clue her in, but why split hairs?) Louise was known for being difficult on the set, and dismissive of her co-stars. After all, her name and scantily-clad bod had been a staple of society page gossip columns and magazine pictorials for the past 10 years. She was a star, dammit, not an ensemble player. Of all the castaways, Louise has remained the sole holdout in most reunion projects and promotional gigs related to the show.

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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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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