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5 TV Dads Who Deserve a Mug

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Loyal viewers are familiar with those stalwart TV dads like Cliff Huxtable and Ward Cleaver. But in honor of Father's Day, we thought we'd salute some of the lesser-known, unsung TV patres familias who have been overshadowed by those with better syndication deals.

1. The Single Dad Who Wasn't Meant to Be

Picture 42.pngEight is Enough was based on the writings of newspaper columnist Tom Braden. Dick Van Patten was cast as the patriarch of the Bradford family. The series was supposed to be a typical mom-dad-kids nuclear family comedy/drama, but Diana Hyland, who was cast as wife Joan Bradford, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy after filming just four episodes. She never returned to the show, and her death was written into the show. Scripts were quickly re-written and Van Patten did an admirable job of playing a single dad raising eight children (none of whom looked like they could be remotely related to one another). The Powers That Be eventually decided that the Bradford family needed a mother figure, so Tom married Abby, who'd been written into the series as his son's tutor.

2. The Dad Who Was Inspired by the Show

Picture 6.pngThe Courtship of Eddie's Father was based on a 1963 film. In the TV version, Bill Bixby played Mr. Eddie's Father (as he was always addressed by Mrs. Livingston, his Japanese housekeeper). He was a widower raising a young son (Brandon Cruz), and each episode featured some serious dad-and-son bonding time, when the pair would wander the beach or play in the park and ponder life's minutiae. It was all very crunchy granola parenting which was never practiced by any dads in my neighborhood"¦for that matter, none of the fathers on my block regularly sported wind-blown hair, bell bottom slacks and chest-revealing shirts. In real life, Bixby was so impressed with Cruz that he longed to have a family of his own. He eventually married and had a son, Christopher, on whom he doted. Tragically, Christopher was only six years old when he died of cardiac arrest brought on by acute epiglottitis. Bixby and Cruz remained close until Bixby's passed away in 1993.

3. The Dad Who Kept It Cool

Picture 51.pngWhen it comes to TV dads, was there any more tolerant than Steven Keaton? Remember his reaction on an episode of Family Ties upon returning home from a weekend vacation to find that Alex had turned the family home into a hotel for rabid college sports fans during his absence: "Parents are conditioned to put up with a few minor accidents when they leave their children home alone. A broken vase, spilled milk on the rug. There was a kangaroo... in my living room." (Spoken in the measured, even tones that Michael Gross made Steven's trademark.) Sure, there were times when he'd occasionally lose his cool (such as during a game of Scrabble, when he insisted that the family not only accept Zoquo "“ Greek for water sports - as a word, but must also use it in casual conversation), but overall he was the understanding, level-headed dad that we all wished we'd had.

4. The Dad Who Irritated His Sons
Picture 7.pngBen Cartwright was nothing if not tenacious. The Bonanza patriarch went through wives like modern men go through tube socks. Luckily, despite Indian attacks and horse riding accidents, each of his wives lasted long enough to provide him with a son. Adam, Hoss and Little Joe Cartwright helped their devoted Pa to manage the half-million acre ranch called The Ponderosa. Behind the scenes, all was not well with the eldest of the Cartwright clan. Pernell Roberts, who played Adam, was tired of wearing his toupee, but since he was only 13 years younger than Lorne Greene, the producers wanted him to look as young as possible. Roberts also bristled at having to refer to Greene as "Pa," saying that a 34-year-old university-educated son would never address his father thusly. Roberts departed the show after six seasons, but Bonanza carried on for an additional eight without him.

5. The Dad Who Was a Cad Off Set
Picture 8.pngCharles Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie fame was the ideal dad to a generation of late 70s kids whose fathers were spending more time at work than at home. He was a hardscrabble bootstraps kind of guy who never had two nickels to rub together yet he always had time to spend with his ever-expanding family. It was Landon's hope that Little House fans would ignore the tabloid reports of his canoodling with on-set makeup artist Cindy Clerico (who would eventually become his third wife) and focus on the solid family values expressed on his show instead.

So who is your favorite TV dad? We left quite a few off our list, from Hank Hill to Doggie Daddy, because we were sort of on the fence about them and wanted our loyal readers to chime in with their votes.

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Shhh...super secret special for blog readers.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]