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Fun 'Frasier' Facts You Might Not Know

Though he was initially reluctant to do so, Kelsey Grammer allowed his Cheers character, Dr. Frasier Crane, to be spun off into a separate series in 1993. Millions of Frasier fans are glad that he did. Since I certainly count myself among those fans, I thought I'd share more about how the series came to be.

1. Why the first idea didn't work

Early in 1993, Kelsey Grammer approached David Lee, David Angell, and Peter Casey (the brains behind the sitcom Wings) and asked if they'd be interested in creating a show for him. Grammer knew that Cheers' days were numbered, and thought it was time to strike out on his own. Both he and the creative team thought that any use of the Frasier Crane character would encourage unfair comparisons to Cheers, so their initial ideas involved Kelsey playing a paralyzed media mogul cared for by a street-smart nurse in a Manhattan penthouse. Paramount hated the idea and convinced all concerned that they'd be nuts not to capitalize on the built-in Cheers audience.

2. The Secret Behind the Show's Setting

Once it was agreed that Grammer would continue as Dr. Crane, the creators still wanted to distance themselves from Boston and the whole "crossover syndrome." They knew that the network would insist on having both Wings and former Cheers characters make guest appearances if the show was set anywhere in Massachusetts, so they moved Frasier across the country to Seattle. The gourmet coffee scene was taking root in that area, which provided a central meeting place for the characters. The creators didn't want Frasier Crane to work in private practice, which had already been done in The Bob Newhart Show. Grammer's resonant voice seemed natural for radio, so the concept of a call-in psychiatry show seemed natural. WKRP in Cincinnati had been set at a radio station, however, so writers needed to develop some sort of home life for Frasier.

3. The Real Life Inspiration

As it happened, David Lee was an only child and his father had recently suffered a debilitating stroke. Lee had to move back in with his mom for a while to help care for his dad during his rehabilitation. That situation gave him an idea. Why not have Frasier suddenly be forced to care for an aging parent? This role was filled by John Mahoney as Frasier's father Martin, a retired policeman who'd been injured in the line of duty. Not only would this angle provide the series with plots revolving around him at home, it also allowed the creators to incorporate one of their original ideas from their first series pitch "“ a home health care worker.

4. Daphne Moon or Daphne Luna?

The production team had Rosie Perez in mind to play Martin's nurse during their original pitch. But Warren Littlefield, then the president of NBC, thought that British actress Jane Leeves was perfect for the role. Kelsey had reservations about Jane; he thought an English character in such a role might be too reminiscent of Nanny and the Professor. But after a series of screen tests, it became apparent that Leeves brought the perfect mix of quirkiness, fun and warmth to the character and was hired.

5. How Poor Phoebe Got Fired

The role of Frasier's producer was the least developed when the pilot script was written. A casting call was announced and the role was eventually whittled down to two actresses: Lisa Kudrow and Peri Gilpin. The producers found Kudrow to be extremely funny, and able to make even the most mundane lines sound hilarious, so she was hired. During the first few days of rehearsals for the pilot episode, however, the writers found themselves having to re-write the characters of Roz and Frasier. It seemed that while Lisa was funny, she just couldn't play "forceful." It soon became apparent that that the role of Roz would have to fall to someone who, although less educated than Dr. Crane, would be in control of things at the radio station. They needed a character who could hold her own whenever Frasier became too pompous, and that someone was Peri Gilpin. Lisa was a trouper when the news was delivered, and landing a role on Friends the following year certainly helped to ease her pain.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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