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5 Dumb Moments in TV Careers

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I suppose that unless you hire Sylvia Browne as your manager, it's impossible to predict which TV shows are going to be hits when considering prospective scripts. But it's always fun to laugh at self-important celebrities after the fact, isn't it? Or do I just have a mean streak?

1. Jerry Van Dyke turns down Gilligan

03.jpgWe've all read interviews with actors who lament about being typecast, and that list includes some of the folks who worked on Gilligan's Island. Interestingly enough, Bob Denver almost didn't get the title role because series creator Sherwood Schwartz couldn't picture Denver as anyone but the bearded beatnik Maynard G. Krebs from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The actor that Schwarz thought would be perfect for the part of Gilligan was Jerry Van Dyke, who had perfected the art of playing a hapless goofball. Van Dyke, in a typically savvy career move, turned down the offer, describing the script as "inane."

Instead, he accepted the lead on a different sitcom, My Mother the Car. Hmmm... stranded castaways, or mom reincarnated as an automobile?

Which one ranks higher on the inanity meter?

The famous TV roles Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby could have had, after the jump.

2. Mickey Rooney rejects All in the Family

05.jpgNorman Lear's first choice for the lead role in his edgy new sitcom was Mickey Rooney. He pitched the role of bigoted Archie Justice (the show was called Justice for All at the time) to "the Mick" and gave him a script to read. Rooney responded, "'Norman, they're going to kill you in the street. They're going to kill you dead." He felt that such an offensive show would spell career death for anyone involved. (Even Lucille Ball commented "How can they show this on CBS?" after viewing the pilot.) Of course, All in the Family went on to not only win ratings and awards but also made a star out of the man who ultimately played Archie, Carroll O'Connor.

3. Bing Crosby as Columbo

07.jpgThe role of bumbling detective Lt. Columbo had been written with an older man in mind. Indeed, when previous incarnations of the character had appeared on stage and on the old TV show Chevy Mystery Theater, Columbo had been played by Burt Freed and Thomas Mitchell (Scarlett O'Hara's dad in Gone with the Wind). So when network execs gave the green light to starring the rumpled detective in his own prime time series, producers first approached Bing Crosby for the role. However, Crosby considered himself semi-retired, and while he didn't mind the occasional guest spot, he knew that the grind of a regular series would interfere with his first love, golf. Peter Falk seemed an unlikely replacement, but he made the role his own, and today it's hard to picture anyone else in that wrinkled raincoat, fumbling for a pencil and mumbling "Oh, just one more thing..."

4. Barbara Cowsill and The Partridge Family

09.jpgThe Cowsills were a singing family who'd hit the #2 spot on the pop charts twice, with "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things" and "Hair." Unlike other family groups of that era (The Osmonds, The Jackson 5ive), mini-skirt-clad mom Barbara Cowsill was also a part of the band. The American Dairy Association signed the family to a million dollar contract and featured them drinking milk in commercials and print ads. It was the logical next step to have Hollywood come a-callin'. A proposed TV series about a musical family was pitched to the band's manager, Bud Cowsill, ex-Navy officer and patriarch who ruled his family with an iron fist. The producers wanted the Cowsill kids for the show, since the older brothers were already getting extensive coverage in teen magazines, but they were leaning towards hiring an experienced "name" actress for the role of the mother. Bud held his ground and said it was Barb or nothing, and he ultimately got his wish. None of the Cowsill clan were used, and The Partridge Family not only made a star out of David Cassidy but also revived Shirley Jones' flagging career.

5. Van Johnson snubs The Untouchables

01.jpgWhen Desilu Productions was preparing The Untouchables for television, Van Johnson was offered and had accepted the lead role as Eliot Ness. Johnson's wife, Evie, also acted as his manager, and tried a last-minute strategy to boost her husband's salary; with shooting scheduled to begin on Monday, she phoned Desi Arnaz on Saturday night and demanded that he double Van's salary. Arnaz told Evie, "You know what you can tell Van"¦?" He browsed through the Screen Actors Guild directory and saw old pal Robert Stack listed. He phoned Stack at two o'clock Sunday morning and offered him the role. Stack (who came from a wealthy California family and didn't really need a job) asked, "Is it gonna be anything good?" Desi replied, "Amigo, we're gonna make it the best damn show in all of television."

Past 'Confessions of a TV-Holic'...

When Sitcoms Go Global
5 Cases of Unwanted Fame
When Sitcom Stars Start Expecting
7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The Golden Girls
We Still Love Lucy
6 Backdoor Pilots (and why they belong at the back door)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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