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Creatively Speaking: Tom Snyder

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Creatively Speaking continues today with Tom Snyder, creator of one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Dr. Katz.

I've also selected two excerpts from episodes that make me laugh every time I see "˜em (recently got a hold of the complete Dr. Katz on DVD, including commentary by Tom and Jonathan Katz, as well as some episodes that weren't originally aired).

First one to correctly tell us what movie Ben Katz is quoting somewhere hidden in the first clip gets serious _floss braggin rights. Another interesting bit of Katz trivia: the song the Dr. sings in the first clip was written by our interviewee today, Tom Snyder.

Dr. Katz and son Ben

DI: How did you first come up with the idea for Dr. Katz?

TS: I had an educational software company at the time and I'd met a woman, a bartender, at the bar where I liked to write. She drew on napkins all the time and eventually I asked her if she'd like a job drawing illustrations for the educational software games. She worked for me for a year and we started messing around on weekends with me recording my voice and her drawing silly illustrations. So I did a little thing where I played a shrink who was talking to his son and did both of the voices by pitching my voice electronically. It was about a minute long, animated. We sent it out to a friend of mine who worked in Los Angeles. A week later he called and said, 'Come on out and we'll pitch it to Comedy Central,' which we did. They said, 'It's fantastic, but what you need Tom is talent.' Of
course, I thought they meant I wasn't talented, which was hurtful. But what they really meant was I needed to hire someone like a professional voice comedian to play some of the parts. So I found out that my favorite stand-up comedian, Jonathan Katz, lived in my neighborhood in Boston. So I went over to his house and played this little one minute thing and asked him if he'd like to be the doctor and he said, 'Definitely, yes.' So we started making little bits and pieces and Comedy Central picked them up. At first they were little bumpers that would go between advertisements. But then they moved us up to the half-hour format and pretty soon we had an Emmy.

DI: The animation in Dr. Katz has a unique, static feel to it. Can you tell us about the technique called Squigglevision, which gives the show its trademark look?

TS: Well it's not something I'm proud of, except that it was cheap. Some
people refer to it as the perfect crime. Some people say it causes
epilepsy. But with this educational software company, I'd come up with a
really cheap way of making illustrations look animated by having an
illustrator draw an outline of a character and then the computer would
draw it five times over and over again with randomness added. So it would
kinda squiggle. And it was really cheap because there was no animation
involved. So we started doing it on the Dr. Katz stuff, not really
thinking it would be enough for primetime but we stuck with it. And it was
funny because there's no animation. Nobody walks anywhere, nobody reaches for anything. Steven Spielberg became very interested in the effect and our comedy and so we did a pilot for Dreamworks and we were out at his office and I mentioned in passing that there wasn't any animation, that it was just squiggling characters. And he said, 'Well that's not true because we just saw an episode and Dr. Katz is at the sink and then he walks over table and they have breakfast and Ben gets up to leave.' And I said, 'No, actually, no one ever moves. We just cut from one shot to the next, back and forth.' So there's no real animation involved.

DI: Did you coin the word Squigglevision?

TS: Yes. As a matter of fact, we copyrighted it, thinking: everyone is going
to be doing this. Boy, how wrong we were. It had charm, but I think it
kept us from being as mainstream as Family Guy and other shows that came
after it.

DI: If you had pitched the show today, do you think anyone would have even bothered?

TS: No. You couldn't sell Dr. Katz today, regardless of the Squigglevision,
for the simple reason that it's not vulgar enough. Even then they were
asking us if we could use the word ass more, if we could make it dirtier.
Even back in the mid-90s. But we said, 'Nah, it's really sweet.' If a
stand-up comic has a particularly funny routine, we'll do it. But it
wasn't what we were going for. We weren't doing it to be rude. We were
doing it to be funny and conversational, and kinda dry. There's no way you
could do it now. My former company has a show on now called Assy McGee
for Cartoon Network and it's about a cop who's just an ass. And farts,
that's how it talks. That's the kind of stuff they're doing now, which I
have no interest in, really. I'm an old-fashioned guy. I like musical

DI: Much of each episode wasn't scripted. Can you talk about the process? How did the stories evolve?

TS: We'd give Comedy Central an outline, not a script. So the show was about 60-70% off script by the time we were done. We had awfully good improvisers. For the first couple years, I'd write an outline about the story. Then, John Katz and I would meet in a bar and I'd read the outline to him. And he'd say funny things, so I'd jot them down. And then they became part of an expanded outline. And then I'd go home and retype it bring it back to him and he'd say even funnier things. So the outline would evolve that way. And then we'd bring people into the booth, the regulars, John Benjamin, Laura Silverman, and they'd improv off it. Then we brought the comedians in. Initially we'd have them go in the booth with John [Katz] because they were in therapy. He played the therapist and they
played the patients. We did that twice, but it just didn't work. The rhythm and pace got all f-ed up. It wasn't singing at all. So when Ray Ramono came in--one of our first patients--we said, 'Ray, just come in and do your routine. And we were smart enough to bring employees from my company and have them sit in the control room outside the booth so Ray would be performing. Comedians are funnier when they have an audience. So they would do 20 minutes and then we would repurpose it after they were gone. We'd have Jonathan sit in the booth and we'd stop and start and stop and start the tape and have him drop in vocals as setups, to make it sound like a therapy session. And that worked like a charm for 6 years.

DI: There were so many amazing stand-up comedians on Katz's couch. Everyone from Steven Wright to Jeff Garlin, from Sarah Silverman to Conan O'Brien. You also had literary luminaries like David Mamet and one of Hollywood's tallest actors, Jeff Goldblum. How did you get all those amazing people to
come in and sit on the couch?

Two words: Jonathan Katz. At the time we did the show, he was the guy
referred to as "the comic's comic." He's very smart, very sweet, and
gentlemanly, very funny and he'd worked with everybody during the 80s and
early 90s and everyone wanted to be on the show. Early on, he brought in a
couple of his buddies like Ray Ramono and Dom Irrera Once word-of-mouth
caught on, we could have any comedian we wanted. Sometimes they got in
touch with us, sometimes we got in touch with them. Winona Rider, David
Duchovny, Jeff Goldblum, they all got in touch with us. The only person we
couldn't get, who I really wanted, was Bob Newhart. I'm not sure he got
the humor of the show.

DI: Did Comedy Central ever censor content?

Not really. Although there was this one time when we had a gay comedian
from Boston come in with his real-life lover to do couples therapy. They
were both very smart and very funny but one of the things that came out in
the course of their session was that not only was one of the guys dying,
but he was probably going to die soon. For me it was magical-the way they
were talking and joking about it. They had just gone out shopping for an
urn for the ashes and the guy said he'd decided not to buy the urn because
it made him look wide at the hips. So it was funny, and moving and, at the
time, Comedy Central would put anything we did on the air with no notes.
We had an awesome amount of freedom with them. But ultimately we decided not to do the episode because some of the younger producers on the show were a little embarrassed by the sentiment. That was a big disappointment for me. But all we ever heard from Comedy Central was to make it dirtier! We were too clean for them.

DI: So what are you working on these days?

TS: John [Katz] and I are forever pitching shows. And I've got my own company now and I'm writing and hoping to produce a musical comedy for the stage. I'm not Jewish, I'm not gay, I don't live in New York City-really, I have no right to be doing this. But musicals are my first love, so I'm writing this show about a guy who's an extremely good liar, an impulsive liar. He can't stand when people are sad around him, so he lies to make people feel better. And ultimately he gets in trouble because he's in over his head and falls in love with someone he's been lying to. So it's the story about my life, essentially.

Jeff Garlin on the Dr.'s couch

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.