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All Singing! All Dancing! All Failures! 4 Variety Shows that Failed to Find an Audience

These days, the TV listings are full of reality shows, with The Mole, American Gladiators, and America's Next Top Model providing entertainment to the masses. Back in the day, though, variety shows such as Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show brought an entirely different form of entertainment into American living rooms. But not every variety show worked. Here are four series that lasted fewer than ten episodes (with one that didn't even make it through the first commercial break).

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, 1977

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour has the dubious honor of being one of the worst shows ever to air on television (it placed fourth in a 2002 TV Guide list of 50 such programs.) Producers Sid and Marty Krofft convinced everyone involved with The Brady Bunch to return. Well, almost everyone—Eve Plumb (Jan) was famously replaced by Geri Reischel. For the cast, the experience was mixed. The kids reportedly hated doing the show, while Florence Henderson and Robert Reed regard it as their favorite Brady experience.

The premise was a little odd. Leaving their familiar Southern California house for one on the beach, the show covers both the variety show on ABC and the behind the scenes goings-on at the Brady residence. The characters all seemed a little off too, seeming nothing like their sitcom personas. The show appears to inhabit an alternate Brady dimension, as in none of the Brady specials in the years to come ever mention a passing "Hey, remember when we did the variety show for ABC and lived near the beach?"

Audiences enjoyed the first special, but when it became a regular series, viewers were laughing more at the actors than with them. The show was cancelled after the remaining 8 episodes had aired, though it has lived on through spoofs on That 70s Show and The Simpsons. Most of the series is available on DVD, for those who absolutely must complete their Brady collection.

Pink Lady and Jeff, 1980

This one is a "what were they thinking?" moment.

Featuring female singers Keiko "Kei" Masuda and Mitsuyo "Mie" Nemoto, Pink Lady enjoyed huge success in Japan. Nine of their singles sold more than a million copies. Their first step towards a career in the US was a concert in Las Vegas, which led to an English-Language album with one minor hit. This impressed producers at NBC, who had created a variety show for Pink Lady with (then) up-and-coming comedian Jeff Altman.

As producers quickly discovered Mie and Kei knew little English, and had to learn their parts of the show phonetically—a draining process for all involved. Rather than perform their own hits, the girls were forced to sing disco numbers such as "Knock on Wood" and, in this clip, "Boogie Wonderland":

The show's writing and Jeff's comedy were about as good as Pink Lady's English skills. Whatever career momentum Jeff had was killed by groaners like this:

Jeff: "You girls are the biggest thing in Japan!"
Pink Lady: "No, Jeff, the biggest thing in Japan is Godzilla!"

Pink Lady broke up a year later in Japan, and Jeff continues to do occasional stand-up appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman. Of the six episodes produced, only five were aired; all six can be found on DVD if you're desperate to see them.

Mary, 1978

Mary Tyler Moore was ready to make a comeback in 1978, a year after The Mary Tyler Moore Show had ended. CBS was happy to have her, offering a great supporting cast (including Swoosie Kurtz and newcomers David Letterman and Michael Keaton), talented dancers, and an orchestra led by Alf Clausen. What wasn't provided, however, was an audience to watch the show.

Mary tanked in the Nielsen ratings and was cancelled after only 3 of the 16 shows produced had aired. The entire fiasco cost CBS $5 million. Moore changed the format to a variety/sitcom hybrid and the show re-premiered later that year on CBS to similar success.

Turn-On, 1969

It's one of the most notorious flops in TV history, yanked after one episode—and in some markets, during the first commercial break. Ed Friendly and George Schneider , the producers of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, created the show, which they described as a "visual, comedic, sensory assault." Presented as though produced by a computer, Turn-On featured fast cuts (new at the time) and different styles of live-action and animated comedy. Rumors spread that the show featured full frontal nudity, and that its title was based on Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out." The Cleveland station that cancelled the show during the first commercial break sent ABC a nasty telegram, which read, "If you naughty little boys have to write dirty words on the wall, please don't use our walls." Most other stations dropped the show after the first episode.

Honorable Mention: Mel & Susan Together

This one not only failed to find an audience, but there's almost no record of it online. Besides IMDb's confirmation of its existence, the only mention I found was in Craig Nelson's now out-of print BadTV, which has this to say about the show that ran four weeks:

"Mel & Susan Together, 1978: If you wanted to create a smash hit variety show, wouldn't you pair Mel Tillis (the stuttering Nashville singer) with Susan Anton (Muriel cigar spokesperson and Amazon model) as the hosts? The idea here was "Hey, isn't everyone in America dying to see these two together?" and the mystery of the human spirit explored is "How does anyone come up with an idea like this?"

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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