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6 Little-Known Facts About The Dick Van Dyke Show

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The Dick Van Dyke Show may seem dated in some ways, but it broke so much TV ground in an otherwise staid era.

1. It was all Carl Reiner's Idea

From 1950-54, Carl Reiner cut his show business teeth as a writer/performer on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. His fellow writers on the show included the famous (Mel Brooks) and not-so-famous (Selma Diamond, who would later portray bailiff Selma Hacker on Night Court). When Caesar's show ended, Reiner wrote a pilot script and several episodes for a new TV sitcom which closely mirrored his own life. Called Head of the Family, the show highlighted the daily life of Rob Petrie (Reiner), a TV comedy writer who lived in New Rochelle with his wife and son. Borscht belt comedian Morey Amsterdam was cast as the Mel Brooks-type joke writer, and Rose Marie portrayed the self-deprecating spinster-in-search-of-a-husband Selma Diamond.

2. The Lead Role Almost Went to Johnny Carson

The pilot caught the attention of veteran producer Sheldon Leonard (The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show) who liked the concept and the script, but didn't care for Reiner's acting ability. He not-so-tactfully suggested that the lead character needed to be more mainstream American (translation: less Jewish) for the show to be successful with a wide audience. The finalists for the lead role of Rob Petrie boiled down to Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke. Thanks to name recognition generated by a successful run on Broadway in Bye, Bye Birdie, Van Dyke landed the job. Of course, the runner-up didn't do so badly for himself.

3. The Girl with Something Moore

As a teen, Mary Tyler Moore had auditioned for a role as Danny Thomas' daughter on his self-titled sitcom. Despite her comedic prowess, Thomas rejected her, saying that "no one would believe a girl with a little button nose like hers could be a daughter of mine." A few years later, when Moore auditioned for the role of Laura Petrie, she not only caught Carl Reiner's attention, but also jogged Danny Thomas' memory. While Van Dyke initially objected to her hiring since she was 11 years younger than he, the onscreen chemistry proved magical enough to banish any doubts he harbored. Despite her youth, Moore was no pushover. When initial scripts called for her to vacuum the living room in a dress and high heels à la June Cleaver, the actress put her foot down. Mary was a young mother in real life, and she wore comfortable clothing to perform household chores. Thus was born Laura Petrie's trademark Capri pants, which simultaneously gave network censors fits and set suburban housewives free of their pantyhose prison.

4. Breaking Color Barriers

From a 21st-century point of view, it seems ridiculous to praise a series for using African-American actors in roles other than maids or railroad porters. But when The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered, the world of prime-time sitcoms was a different place. Even though the Civil Rights movement was slowly progressing, TV was still dragging its feet when it came to change. As a result, one of the most popular episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show—"That's My Boy?"—almost didn't make it to film. In the episode, exhausted and overwrought new dad Rob was convinced that the hospital had sent him and Laura home with the wrong baby. A couple named Peters had welcomed a baby in the same hospital on the same day, in a similar hospital room number, and the Petries had even received some of the Peters' gifts in error. The comedic (and controversial) payoff to the episode arrived when Mr. and Mrs. Peters visited the Petrie household and were revealed to be a black couple, played by Greg Morris and Mimi Dillard. The positive response from the studio audience gave producer Sheldon Leonard the confidence to sign Bill Cosby for a co-starring role in a new series he was producing, I Spy.

5. The Drama behind the Laughter

Behind the scenes, all was not always well. Dick Van Dyke was a self-confessed "people pleaser" and was loathe to reveal any unhappiness or frustration, either on the set or when meeting fans. Instead, he found solace after hours with a good friend named Jack Daniels. (Years later, Van Dyke publicly announced his alcoholism and checked himself into a facility for treatment.) Meanwhile, co-star Mary Tyler Moore began to experience strange unexplained medical complaints on the set, including dizziness, weight loss, and blurred vision. Presuming she was overworked, she ignored the warning signs which she later found to be attributed to Type 1 diabetes. Then, during the series' fourth season, Rose Marie's beloved husband of 20 years passed away. She was so overcome with grief that she wanted to quit the show, but director John Rich coaxed her into staying.

6. Words behind the Music

The opening to The Dick Van Dyke Show is certainly memorable (and not only for Dick's famous stumble over the ottoman). But what most folks don't know is that lyrics were written to go along with the program's instrumental theme. In fact, they were written by co-star Morey Amsterdam, who also penned the words for the hit "Rum and Coca-Cola." Memorize the following lyrics and think of them as you watch the traditional Dick Van Dyke introduction:So you think that you've got trouble.
Well trouble's a bubble.
So tell old mister trouble to get lost.

Why not hold your head up high and
Stop cryin', start tryin'.
And don't forget to keep your fingers crossed.

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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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