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Stuff You Don't Know About Writers You Might

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Last week, we discussed notable strikes in American history. Today's topic: notable TV writers. The idea came from newcomer Matthew Smith, who collaborated with mental_floss veterans Stacy, David, Becky and Kara to dig up stories about some of TV's greatest scribes.

1. J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams, who is the co-creator, writer, director and executive producer of Lost, has written for some very-unLost-like movies including Armageddon, Taking Care of Business and Forever Young. He also created and wrote for the TV show Felicity.

2. Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes of Grey's Anatomy also wrote the script for Britney Spears' bomb Crossroads. She got the inspiration for Grey's from working as a candy striper in high school.

3. B.J. Novak (===>)

B.J. Novak (Ryan Howard), writer/actor of The Office, went to high school with fellow castmember John Krasinski (Jim Halpert). Krasinski acted in one of Novak's plays while in school. Two of his on-screen co-workers are also writers: Paul Lieberstein (Toby, HR Director) and Mindy Kaling (Kelly, Ryan's enthusiastic ex-girlfriend). Three if you count Steve Carell, who wrote the season two finale.

4. Marc Cherry

Marc Cherry, writer/producer/creator of Desperate Housewives, received his first major writing credits on The Golden Girls. His first job in the industry was as a personal assistant to Dixie Carter of Designing Women. Ms. Carter's manageability came into question when Cherry cast her on Housewives as the wicked and maniacal Gloria Hodges.

Kenlevine1.jpg5. Ken Levine (===>)

The first episode Ken Levine wrote for M*A*S*H was "Out of Sight/Out of Mind." He bought a VCR "“ which cost $1700 at the time "“ so he could record the episode at home, particularly his name in the credits. Mr. Levine, whose writing credits include Cheers, Frasier, The Simpsons, Wings and Everybody Loves Raymond, is keeping busy during the strike by covering it on his blog.

6. David Mirkin

David Mirkin has written for a number of hit shows, including The Simpsons, Newhart, Get a Life and The Edge. But it was his job at Three's Company "“ his first-ever writing experience "“ that earned him a cat. David took the cat home after it was used in an episode. He nicknamed it T.C"¦short for "Televised Cat."

7. Sonia Manzano

Sonia Manzano is not only a writer for Sesame Street, she is also one of the well-known human characters "“ Maria. Now, imagine walking into a production of The Vagina Monologues and finding Maria up on stage talking about her intimate anatomy. It could happen "“ Sonia has performed in the VM on the New York Stage.

8. Stephen Hillenburg

Stephen Hillenburg created Spongebob Squarepants. But before that, he was a marine biology teacher at what is now the Orange County Ocean Institute. He worked as a marine biologist from 1984-1987.

man-in-cape1.jpg9. Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin of West Wing and Sports Night fame delivered singing telegrams and drove a limo when he was fresh out of college and looking for steady writing and acting work.

10. Larry David (===>)

We could (and should) do a whole post on Larry David. But here are two fun facts: he was considered for Billy Bob Thornton's part in Bad Santa, and he doesn't like cowboys. One more: he played the man in the cape who met mysteriously with George's father.

11. Sam Simon

Best known as a co-creator/writer of The Simpsons and for writing credits on Cheers and Taxi, Sam Simon also manages former WBO heavyweight boxing champion Lamon Brewster.

12. Al Jean

Although Al Jean is probably best known for his work on The Simpsons, he also used to write for ALF. Yes, that ALF. Some of his Simpsons nicknames include Anachronistic Al Jean / Atrocious Al Jean / Avuncular Al Jean / Awful Al Jean / Mean Al Jean. (A new nickname is given to each member of the cast every year for the annual "Treehouse of Horror" episode.)

13. Alan Ball

Six Feet Under and American Beauty writer Alan Ball wrote for Cybill Shepard's self-titled show (Cybill), and Shepard is rumored to be the basis for Annette Benning's self-absorbed character from American Beauty.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]