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Theeeeere's Johnny! 5 Memorable Moments from The Tonight Show

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Sixteen years ago today, Johnny Carson ended his 30-year run as the King of Late Night Television. Johnny's relaxed manner and casual interviewing style made him a trusted friend to many Americans, and was the sole reason that many families purchased a second TV (for the bedroom, since The Tonight Show didn't wrap up until 1:00AM EST). Ask Dave, Conan, Jay, et al, who their mentor and inspiration was, and the answer is always the same: Johnny Carson. Here are just a few examples of what made Johnny a cut above the rest:

1. Carson Made Magicians Tremble

Carson had always been fascinated by magicians, and at age 12 he sent away for a mail order magic kit. After a bit of practice he became The Great Carsoni and performed for church socials and Rotary Club luncheons. He never lost his interest in sleight of hand, and when world-famous "psychic" Uri Geller was booked for an appearance on The Tonight Show in 1973, Johnny contacted his good friend and fellow magician James Randi for advice on how to keep Geller's performance "honest." Geller adamantly billed himself not as a magician, but as a true psychic who could bend spoons with his mind. Randi advised Carson to have his own staff set up the necessary props, and not let Geller's people near them. Geller was visibly filled with trepidation from the get-go when asked to determine which metal container was filled with water without touching them (watch carefully and see him gently nudge the table with his knee in an effort to get a hint). Throughout the entire fiasco, Johnny remained poker-faced and never indicated that he had any doubt in Geller's abilities.

2. A Soft Spot for Weirdos

Johnny invited his share of eccentrics onto his show, but he never openly mocked or belittled them. That's not to say that he didn't have fun with them. Take, for instance, Myrtle Young. Ms. Young was an employee of the Seyfert Potato Chip Company, and her job entailed sitting at the end of the production line and removing any chips that had too much starch or too many burn marks. She began collecting oddly-shaped chips and that hobby landed her a spot on The Tonight Show. Poor Myrtle almost had a heart attack, though, when she heard a suspicious "crunch" during her presentation and thought that Johnny had munched on one of her masterpieces.

3. Quick, Cutting Remarks

Ed Ames caused of one of the longest laughs in Tonight Show history. The year was 1965 and Ames was co-starring as Mingo, Fess Parker's Native American sidekick on TV's Daniel Boone. He had developed an aptitude for tomahawk throwing while filming the series, so Johnny handed him a couple of hatchets during a visit and invited Ames to toss them at a line drawing of a cowboy. The slightly different construction of a hatchet versus a tomahawk threw off Ames' aim, and he hit the target in a cowpoke's most delicate region. As Ames covered his face in embarrassment, Carson remarked, "I didn't even know you were Jewish!"

4. Animal Magnetism

Many of us city-dwellers would probably never have seen such exotic creatures as a Celebes macaque or a two-toed sloth if it hadn't been for Joan Embery's frequent visits to The Tonight Show. Johnny was always a good sport about playing second fiddle to the unpredictable animals Joan brought with her from the San Diego Zoo, and he laughed along with the audience when a few of those critters used his designer suits as a comfort station.

5. A Tearful Farewell

Bette Midler's musical send-off on Johnny's final show was certainly poignant, but we expect tears at a retirement party, no? An equally moving moment caught viewers by surprise in 1981 when actor (and part-time poet) Jimmy Stewart pulled a wrinkled paper from his coat pocket and proceeded to read a tribute to his beloved dog, Beau. In the past, Stewart's couplets had been of the humorous variety, and this one started out in a similar vein. But by the time he read the final few lines, Jimmy was having trouble with his voice and the normally unflappable Carson was wiping away tears. You'll want to have a Kleenex handy when watching this video.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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