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5 Strange Facts about Classic Kids' Shows

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I grew up in an era when parents didn't hesitate to use the television set as a babysitter. Back then, TV didn't rot our brains, it simply "kept us out of Mom's hair" for a few hours. How many of these shows kept you company as a child?

1. Sesame Street: The Surprising Rocker Behind the Numbers

Sesame Street was sort of the MTV of children's programming when it premiered in 1969. There were a few adult "regulars" in the neighborhood, but the true stars were the Muppets "“ Ernie, Bert, Big Bird, Oscar, et al "“ and the various animated shorts and comedy skits. I already knew my alphabet and numbers, so I was a bit older than the target demographic of Sesame Street, but I still watched it regularly because the A.D.D.-soothing, rapid-fire graphics were mesmerizing. Plus, the songs were catchy. One of my favorite recurring bits was the "Jazzy Spies," which featured a frenetic musical background while a singer repeatedly intoned the particular numeral being highlighted. The vocalist was none other than Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane/Starship), whose then-husband, Jerry Slick, actually produced those segments.

2. Zoom!: The show Michael Jackson was weaned on

If you break into song after hearing the Boston ZIP code 02134, you're obviously a fan of Zoom! The show ran on PBS from 1972 to 1978 and was hosted by a cast of "regular kids" that changed every season. The Zoom-ers also encouraged viewer mail with suggestions for plays, games and experiments for them to attempt on the air. (And you thought Mythbusters was original"¦) The cast members introduced themselves at the beginning of the show by first name only, accompanied by a brief video clip that "described" them. (Anyone remember Bernadette and her "arm thing"?) Leon Mobley's intro showcased his ability to play the drums, and years later, his skills were in high demand as a session drummer on various recordings. In the early 1980s, he was recording with musician Ben Harper in Los Angeles when he received word that an artist recording in the adjacent studio would be thrilled if he could meet "Leon from Zoom." That artist was none other than Michael Jackson.

3. How Spiderman got Caught in The Electric Company's web

Picture 23.png The Electric Company made its debut in 1971, intended for an audience an age group above Sesame Street. The program focused on phonics and grammar, and the cast included a "Who's Who" of future award-winning entertainers: Bill Cosby (who eventually used his tenure on the show as research for his doctoral thesis), Morgan Freeman, Irene Cara, Gene Wilder, and Rita Moreno (who bellowed "Hey, you guys!" at the beginning of each episode). Another recurring character on the show was Spider-Man, who was featured in a continuing series of skits called "Spidey Super Stories." Marvel Comics allowed the Children's Television Workshop to use their popular copyrighted hero free of charge. While the gesture seems altruistic, keep in mind that Marvel reserved the right to use The Electric Company logo and storylines in special editions of their Spiderman comics, a co-branding partnership that translated into huge comic book sales.

4. The Friendly Giant and the song that warms Canadian hearts

Millions of Canadian kids, as well as youngsters who grew up in border towns, remember looking up "“ waaaaay up "“ to watch The Friendly Giant. The story-telling tall guy was played by Wisconsin native Bob Homme, who was so low-key that he made Mr. Rogers look like a caffeine addict. "Friendly" always opened and closed his show by arranging the furniture in front of his fireplace to allow viewers to settle in "“ a rocking chair for those who liked to rock, and a large armchair for two to curl up in. The show's theme song, "Early One Morning," was voted the second-most recognized TV theme song in Canada, after "Hockey Night in Canada."

5. Romper Room: The Golden Arches of Children's Programming

Picture 13.png Let's face it"¦with a name like Kara, you knew the odds were pretty slim that Miss Sally would ever see you through her "magic mirror." But I still watched Romper Room daily, just in case. Romper Room was sort of the McDonald's of children's shows; Bert and Nancy Claster came up with the original concept of the show, in which a teacher read stories and directed games for a group of preschoolers. The first Romper Room aired locally in Baltimore, but the program became so popular that the Clasters sold "franchises" to various local TV markets across the country. By paying a fee and sending a host/teacher go through a training course, a TV station in any city could broadcast its own Romper Room and give it a local "feel."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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