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5 Awful Saturday Night Live Hosts of the '70s

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Since its debut in 1975, SNL has had its ups and downs, most of which were always attributed to the cast du jour (and sometimes the writers). However, even when the show was at its peak both cast- and writer-wise, some shows bombed like Boy George at a tractor pull. A few examples come to mind:

1. Milton Berle

Lorne Michaels was against having Uncle Miltie host the show from the get-go, but the network Powers That Be pressured him, saying "How can you not have the comedian known as Mr. Television host the hippest TV show of the 70s?" Berle's 1979 appearance was a train wreck from Day One. No matter what instructions the director gave him, he'd mug for the camera, do broad spit-takes, and ad-lib jokes directly to the camera. He took it upon himself to give direction to the stagehands and lighting crew, since he'd been working in television since before they were born. Worse still, his lewd backstage behavior did little to endear him to the staff. He insisted on walking around in his boxer shorts and "proving" the oft-whispered Hollywood rumors about his physique to anyone who ambled by. (Gilda Radner happened to walk into a dressing room at the very moment Berle was proudly displaying himself to one of the show's writers.) The proverbial straw that broke Lorne Michaels' back, however, was when Uncle Miltie advised him just prior to the show's finale that a standing ovation was "guaranteed." Berle had used his allotted tickets to fill the audience with friends and relatives who obediently stood and applauded when he sang a dreary version of "September Song."

2. Louise Lasser

Picture 18.pngThe former Mrs. Woody Allen was riding a wave of success in 1976. She was starring in the late-night satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and her face was all over the covers of Rolling Stone, People and TV Guide. Lasser was tapped to host the last episode of the first season in July 1976, and producer Lorne Michaels almost immediately regretted the choice. Lasser had a substance abuse problem (she'd been arrested for possession of cocaine just weeks before) and displayed erratic behavior during rehearsal week, including crawling on her hands and knees into various Rockefeller Center offices looking for drugs. Then on the day of the show, she locked herself in her dressing room and refused to come out. Chevy Chase shouted through the door that he'd wear braids and perform her parts if necessary. Lasser finally complied, and even though her performance was uneven and confounded the live audience, it wasn't quite as awful as some pundits have claimed. (She was, after all, doing her trademarked Mary Hartman stream-of-consciousness rambling). But based on her unprofessional pre-show behavior, she became the first host officially banned by Lorne Michaels.

3. Frank Zappa

Picture 20.pngZappa was a musical innovator, filmmaker and overall renaissance man, but sometimes genius isn't enough to sustain you through a Saturday Night Live opening monologue. Zappa had done well as a musical guest on a previous show, but he was painfully out of his element when he hosted in 1978. Dress rehearsal was disastrous, which had happened with other hosts. But, as writer Don Novello once noted, most hosts shaken by a poor "dress" take time afterward to recoup and re-focus and then try harder for the actual performance. Zappa, however, decided to play it differently. He very deliberately delivered his lines in a sarcastic monotone, making it obvious that he was reading cue cards. He was trying for a snide "I am sooo above sketch comedy" type of attitude, but all he succeeded in doing was alienating the cast (many of whom were Zappa fans) and infuriating Lorne Michaels.

4. Jodie Foster

In 1976 Jodie Foster was many years away from winning her first Academy Award, but she had racked up some impressive credits as a child actress in films like Taxi Driver, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and Bugsy Malone. Her resumé caught the attention of the SNL producers and they enlisted the 14-year-old actress as a host. Sadly, the writers were caught unprepared and had written sketches based around the worldly characters Foster had played. They didn't realize that Jodie was actually a typical tomboy-ish 14-year-old who'd only been performing under a director's instructions in that very adult film. Foster was so nervous about her hosting gig that she'd spilled an Orange Julius on herself just prior to taking the stage. She took it personally as skit after skit fell flat, and with the natural self-consciousness of an early teen she grew more awkward as the show progressed. When the camera cut back to her for the finale after the last commercial, the audience was so silent you could almost hear crickets chirping. After an uncomfortable pause, Foster simply said "thank you" and the credits rolled.

5. Chevy Chase

Picture 22.pngChase was an integral member of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players and became the series' first breakout star (mainly because as the Weekend Update anchor he got to announce his name mid-show every week). He left SNL after one season to pursue a movie career, and returned as a guest host in 1978. There was no love lost between Chase and his former castmates, and he didn't help the situation by acting the diva upon his return. During rehearsals he'd scream and insult everyone from the writers to the stage hands. He insisted on anchoring the Weekend Update segment, even though Jane Curtin had been doing it for the past year. "My fans expect it," he told Lorne Michaels. Bill Murray, the newest cast member, was the target of many of Chevy's jibes, including juvenile schoolyard cracks about Murray's acne-scarred complexion. Murray retorted with a remark about Chevy's relationship with his wife (the couple's turbulent marriage had been recent tabloid fodder), and the pair came to blows just minutes before show time. Even though Chase received an enthusiastic response from the audience, there was a palpable tension onstage between him and the rest of the cast that became more obvious as the show progressed.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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