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7 Tales behind the Tails

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From how Eddie got his job on Frasier to why the Taco Bell dog couldn't wait to get her paws on other fast foods, this week we're taking a look at the pampered lives of some famous prime time pooches.

1. Gidget: The Taco Bell Dog

quierobell.pngThe little Chihuahua that played the Taco Bell dog was named Gidget. She became so popular, however, that two look-alike dogs (Dinky and Taco) were hired to handle the many requests for personal appearances. When Taco Bell ended that particular ad campaign, Gidget made one last TV appearance on The Tonight Show. Host Jay Leno offered her a choice of a chalupa or some KFC chicken. Who would've thought that after all those years what the Taco Bell dog really "quiero-ed" was an extra crispy drumstick!

2. Eddie: The Dog from Frasier

eddie.ew.pngWhen Frasier first started topping the Nielsen ratings every week, which cast member received the most fan mail? You guessed it "“ Eddie the dog. Jane Leeves, who played Daphne on the show, once wryly observed that when Entertainment Weekly used Frasier as a lead story in 1993, Eddie was the only cast member to appear on the cover. Eddie was portrayed by a Jack Russell Terrier named Moose, who'd originally been adopted by a family that wasn't aware of the breed's rambunctious nature. Moose had relentless energy - he dug holes in the back yard, chased anything in his path, chewed furniture and even climbed trees to escape his enclosure. His family gave him up to a rescue organization, which is where professional trainer Mathilde de Cagny discovered him. She decided he would be a good working dog because of his boundless energy and desire to always be doing something. Moose turned out to be an apt pupil, and learned to follow commands immediately. During the doggie auditions for the show, the producers were looking for a pooch that could stare endlessly at Kelsey Grammer (a running joke on the series), and Moose performed flawlessly, staring at Mathilde's outstretched index finger offstage until he was "released."

3. Buck: The Married"¦ with Children Dog

buck.couch.pngThe original Bundy family dog on Married"¦with Children was a Briard named Buck. Often the voice of reason in the Bundy household, Buck's thoughts and observations were expressed in various voice-overs. In real life, Buck was played by Mike, a Briard that professional trainer Steven Ritt found via a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times. Although MwC was Mike's main gig, he also appeared in the music video for Janet Jackson's hit "When I Think of You" and had a small role in the 1988 film Scrooged. Mike co-starred on Married"¦with Children from the series' debut in 1987 until his retirement in 1995. At that time, he was 12-years old, elderly for large breed dogs. Mike passed away nine months after leaving the show of natural causes.

4. Dreyfuss: The Empty Nest Dog

emptynest.pngDreyfuss, from TV's Empty Nest, was big in more ways than one. The St. Bernard/Golden Retriever mix (played by Bear) was an immediate audience favorite, but the producers ended up having to limit his on-camera time because he was so massive. It was difficult to fit more than one actor in a scene when Bear was on the stage! Amazingly, Bear's big bones haven't hurt his family's career options either. His real-life sister, Bodi, is also in the business. She appeared in the film Steel Magnolias as Shirley MacLaine's unruly pooch Rhett.

5. Murray: The Mad About You Dog

dog.murray.pngEven though Mad About You's Paul Buchman described Murray as a "rare Flatbush Pound Collie-Shepherd," in real life Maui (the dog who played Murray) is a Border Collie mix. He was rescued from a Castaic, California, animal shelter and got started in the entertainment business doing commercials. Maui began film work on the same level as many ingénues; he was an understudy for the lead dog in the 1991 film Bingo. As for the tricks he can perform on cue: Maui can sneeze, shake his head, roll over, and (of course!) chase an invisible mouse. One other trick Maui can pull off is "hiking" "“ an industry term meaning to lift his leg as if he's going to relieve himself.

6. Comet: The Full House Dog

dog.comet.pngWe're always hesitant to shatter TV illusions, but we do feel the need to be honest "“ there was more than one Comet on Full House. The first Comet was a Golden Retriever named Buddy, who also starred in the film Air Bud. Unfortunately, Buddy wasn't able to appear in the sequel because he got cancer (the cause of 60% of deaths in Goldens). Once he first became ill, he retired from Full House and several different Goldens played the role of Comet for the rest of the series.

7. Duke: The Dog Who Shills for Bush Beans

dog.bush.pngJay Bush was very nervous about appearing on-camera when he was first tapped to be the family bean commercial spokesman. So, he brought a Golden Retriever named Duketo the set to help him relax. Then, someone got the bright idea to have Jay "tell" Duke the secret Bush's Baked Beans recipe, which he was reluctant to do because he thought it sounded "silly." For whatever reason, Jay tried it, and the campaign took off. Today, the dog that appears with Bush in those commercials is a professional actor; the real Duke doesn't care for show business and prefers to stay home.

Obviously, my space is limited, so I've left out several famous TV canines. Let me know what doggies you'd like to see in our TVHolic window in a future column.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”