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Thank God It's Friday: 7 Reasons to Love Dragnet

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Many of today's crime dramas owe a debt to Dragnet and its creator, Jack Webb. This week, let's take a closer look at the man, the legend.

1. It started with a documentary (sort of)

John Rudolph "Jack" Webb became fascinated by the intricate, behind-the-scenes details of police investigations while working on the 1948 film-noir He Walked by Night. The movie was based on a real-life murder case, and Webb was cast as a crime lab technician. The quasi-documentary style of the film gave him an idea for a police drama series with a similar feel. With the cooperation of Chief William H. Parker of the Los Angeles Police Department, he created Dragnet and its protagonist, Sergeant Joe Friday.

2. There was no time to memorize lines

Have you ever wondered why nearly every Dragnet actor recited their dialog in the same clipped, rat-a-tat fashion? As producer of the series, Webb cut costs where he could, and one of those money-saving measures was limited rehearsal time. He preferred to just have his actors read their lines off teleprompters rather than memorizing them. Of course, in scenes where Sgt. Friday is questioning a witness, this robotic delivery of lines made the show more authentic; wouldn't you have a deer-in-the-headlights expression while being interrogated by Joe?

3. Jack Webb turned down Animal House

Jack Webb was the first choice for the role of Dean Wormer in the 1978 film Animal House, but he turned it down because he thought it poked fun at authority. That's not to say that ol' Jack didn't have a sense of humor about himself and the character that he had created. Check out the skit he did with Johnny Carson below.

Johnny Carson - Copper Clappers

4. There were visual punches (without special effects)

Jack Webb didn't need a myriad of special effects to create a gruesome scenario. His matter-of-fact narration and a series of black-and-white photos succinctly paint a picture of what happens during the first second of a head-on auto collision. It still makes the viewer cringe in pain, even in these days of airbags and shoulder restraints. And if this analysis of one fatal second doesn't prompt you to buckle up while behind the wheel, nothing will.

5. The first color version of the show tackled LSD

Dragnet actually had two different runs on television. The color version that is syndicated today is the second incarnation of the series, and it took full advantage of the medium by premiering in 1967 with the deliciously campy "Blue Boy" episode. Modern viewers should keep in mind that LSD was still legal in the early part of 1967, and its effects weren't completely understood. Of course, history has since shown us that acid can make you pretty high and far out. In 1997, TV Guide ranked the "Blue Boy" episode of Dragnet at number 85 on its "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time" list.

6. The strange prevalence of cigarettes

It's interesting to watch Dragnet from a 21st century viewpoint and note the cultural differences between "then and now." Sure, the clothes, the hairstyles, and even the cars are hopelessly dated, but one aspect that truly stands out is the prevalence of smoking. No one ever bothers to ask "mind if I smoke?" before lighting up, and both airports and hospitals came equipped with pedestal ashtrays in their corridors. Jack Webb promoted cigarettes in both TV commercials and print advertisments, first for L&M, and then Chesterfield. Sadly, his three-pack-a-day habit most likely contributed to his fatal heart attack at age 62.

7. America learned what it meant to be a cop

No one ever summarized the pitfalls of the profession as well as Webb:

It's awkward having a policeman around the house. Friends drop in, a man with a badge answers the door, the temperature drops 20 degrees. You throw a party and that badge gets in the way. All of a sudden there isn't a straight man in the crowd. Everybody's a comedian. "Don't drink too much," somebody says, "or the man with a badge'll run you in." Or "How's it going, Dick Tracy? How many jaywalkers did you pinch today?" All at once you've lost your first name. You're a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, a dick, John Law. You're the fuzz, the heat; you're poison, you're trouble, you're bad news. They call you everything, but never a policeman.

A BUNCH OF OTHER FACTS YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY KNOW:

  • Even though it has become a cliché, Sgt. Friday never actually said "Just the Facts, M'am" on an episode of Dragnet.
  • Before video teleprompters became standard, dialog was offered to TV actors using a decidely ancient technique: it was handwritten on paper scrolls.
  • In 1997, TV Guide ranked the "Blue Boy" episode of Dragnet as number 85 on its "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time" list.
  • Friday and Gannon wore the same color suits, shirts and ties in every episode of Dragnet for continuity purposes, per Webb's direction. Establishing camera shots could thus be used from one episode to another.
  • Jack Webb was the first civilian buried with full police honors. Upon his death, his badge number (714) was officially retired by the LAPD.
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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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    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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