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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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    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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    8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
    May 25, 2017
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    Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

    1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

    What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

    2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

    What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

    3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

    What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

    4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

    What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

    5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

    What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

    6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

    What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

    7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

    What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

    8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

    What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

    The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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