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6 Sci-Fi TV Shows You Probably Didn't See

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As any self-respecting geek would know, there have been some pretty wild ideas for science fiction TV shows. It must have taken a certain warped genius to come up with Doctor Who, Quantum Leap, Lost or The 4400. Of course, those were hits. But some weird ideas didn't catch on so well. Take K-9000 (1990), about a cop who is telepathically linked to a talking, bionic police dog. Or L.A.X. 2194 (1994), a sitcom starring the not-yet-famous Matthew Perry and Ryan Stiles as baggage handlers at Los Angeles Airport, 200 years into the future. Strangely, neither of those made it beyond a pilot episode. The following shows didn't last so long, either. But when you read about them, you can't help thinking "What a wild idea!" (or perhaps "How did they expect anyone to watch that one?")

1. My Living Doll (1964-1965)

How's this for an idea? Build a shapely female robot and give her to a lady-killing military psychiatrist so he can teach her how to be (ahem) a perfect woman. Despite that foolproof concept, this sitcom about Rhoda (played by Julie Newmar, TVs first Catwoman), who lives with Bob McDonald (Robert Cummings) and avoids the lecherous advances of their neighbour, Peter Robinson (Jack Mullaney), only lasted one season. It was long enough for Bob to leave the series, so that Rhoda was placed in the care of"¦ Peter! Naturally, the best man for the job is the guy who spent all his time leering at her. Of course, the joke was on him. How could you have a relationship with a machine? (Of course, as this was a sixties sitcom, they never really covered that"¦)

2. Alternative 3 (1977)

altntv3.jpgEven in the seventies, people were worried about global warming. With this in mind, Alternative 3 was about a secret colony on Mars, built by American and Russian scientists because planet Earth was a lost cause. (The title came from the three alternatives: cut population, cut consumption, or the one they eventually chose: cut and run.) Not a bad idea for a TV series, perhaps. But no, the makers of this one-off British special decided to do it as a mockumentary. The result: thousands of panicking viewers phoned the production company, demanding to know how long they had left to change planets. Writer David Ambrose was unrepentant, saying that he was "constantly amazed at the gullibility of people." American networks turned it down, remembering the panic that happened when Orson Welles scared the U.S. public with his 1938 War of the Worlds radio play.

3. The Ultimate Impostor (1979)

impostor.jpgAnother pilot that didn't hit the big time. In this one, a secret agent's brain is erased by the Russians. As a replacement, a computer is implanted into his skull that programs him with a new personality each week. But he has limited time to use each personality, as they fade after 72 hours. If this had been a series, it might have been a great role for a versatile character actor, who would basically get to play a different character each episode. As it was, it didn't turn lead actor Joseph Hacker into a star "“ and neither did anything else. Still, he's been busy ever since, playing numerous character roles. So maybe he could have done it"¦

4. Cold Lazarus (1996)

cold-l.jpgDennis Potter was known to many in Britain as the Shakespeare of television writers. His miniseries, like Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective (both turned into Hollywood movies), were critically acclaimed—and to be honest, downright weird. But his last miniseries (filmed after his death) was possibly the weirdest. Set 400 years into the future, it was about a virtual reality environment created from the visions and memories of playwright Daniel Feeld (Albert Finney). The thing is, Feeld has been dead for years, so the scientists take all of his visions from his disembodied and cryogenically frozen head. Raising the question: did Potter intend to put his own head in deep freeze?

5. Day Break (2006)

day-break.jpgRemember Groundhog Day, the classic 1992 comedy in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again? How about Groundhog Day: The Series—minus the laughs. Yes, really. In Day Break, Taye Diggs played a police detective framed for a murder, who relives the same day in each episode, always getting closer to finding the real murderer. You might not think that this idea can sustain a whole series"¦ and you might have a point. It was pulled after six episodes due to dismal ratings. The ABC put the remaining seven episodes on its website, so that fans (few as they were) could relive the day a few more times.

6. Gilligan's Planet (1982-1983)

Everyone knows Gilligan's Island, that 1960s sitcom about seven people stranded on a desert island. Sadly, while they seemed to know their location, none of them—not even the Skipper or the all-knowing Professor—was able to build a boat. An animated sequel, however, made a logical suggestion: they built a spaceship (out of trees, coconuts, the usual stuff) and blasted off, hoping to return home. Instead, they went off-course, crashing on an alien planet, where they would be stranded. Hoo boy. Strangely, this possibly wasn't the dumbest idea for a cartoon based on a sitcom. It might come a close second to The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (1980), in which Richie, the Fonz and their pals get stuck in a time-machine and have adventures in different times while trying to return home to the Milwaukee of 1957. Yeesh!

Don't believe us? Here's a clip:

Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia, with books, scripts and countless articles to his credit. Learn more at markjuddery.com.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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