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Tales behind the Tails, Part II

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Mister Ed: Total Prima Donna

arn3.pngBamboo Harvester was already something of an equine star before he landed the role of Mr. Ed. Born in 1949, he'd traveled across the United States many times winning top awards in various horse shows (including the prestigious Madison Square Garden show). The Palomino was 11 when he was tapped to play TV's favorite talking horse. Ed (he quickly learned to answer to his character name) lived with his trainer, Les Hilton, on a large ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and was a quick study. He learned how to open and close doors, untie knots, wave a flag and hold an oversized pencil in his mouth while pretending to write. Like most stars, Ed had an understudy "“ a fellow Palomino named Pumpkin. Ed was a dedicated worker who craved the spotlight and the attention associated with it, so Pumpkin was only used on camera twice during the run of the series. Pumpkin occupied the stall adjacent to Ed at the Hilton ranch, and if a visitor spoke to or petted Pumpkin before acknowledging Ed, Ed would pull his stall door shut and sulk. In fact, when fans visited the set, Ed would refuse to perform if they dared to admire Pumpkin, so Les Hilton had to remove Pumpkin from the set when tour groups were scheduled.

Morris Head-butts his Way up the Corporate Ladder

arn2.pngWisconsin native Bob Martwick was a self-employed animal trainer who supplied most of the non-human stars for TV commercials in the Midwest. He regular prowled pounds and rescue facilities in search of photogenic animals, which is how he happened to find an orange tabby in a Chicago area shelter. The cat had been extracted from a fight and had a torn eyelid and was scheduled to be euthanized. Martwick adopted the tattered Tom and named him "Lucky." When the folks at Nine Lives were looking for a spokescat, Martwick sent Lucky into the boardroom alone. According to an attendee, Lucky jumped up onto the table, ambled up to the art director, head-butted him, and then sat back on the table, eyeing the startled exec. The director immediately declared that this cat was the perfect Morris because he demanded to be the center of attention. As Morris, Lucky flew first class and stayed in five-star hotel suites. But Martwick admitted that, like most cats, Lucky had more fun with an empty cardboard box than a four-poster bed.

Green Acres' Arnold, Never Barbecued

arn1.pngNo doubt Hollywood's biggest ham was Arnold Ziffel, the "son" of Green Acres' Fred and Doris Ziffel. On the show, Arnold loved to play the piano, watch old Westerns on TV and play checkers. He also roller skated, drank lime soda from a straw, and won a prestigious prize for his painting "Nude at a Filling Station." In truth, certain camera angles revealed that the actor(s) portraying Arnold were actually female. That's because a succession of pigs had to be used as they literally outgrew the role, and sows tend to gain weight at a slower rate than hogs. Despite the wealth of 4-footers sharing the role, viewers didn't seem to care or notice and Arnold received more fan mail than any other Green Acres cast member. Arnold even appeared as the "mystery guest" on the game show What's My Line? As for the original pig superstar, that Arnold was trained by legendary Hollywood animal wrangler Frank Inn, who refused to have healthy animals euthanized. Inn ended up keeping the original Arnold as a pet once he retired from show business. Oh, and one more thing: those wrap party barbecue stories you may have heard? They're strictly urban legends. Succeeding "Arnolds" spent their golden years on the farms of Inn's friends.

Smuggled Chinese Cockatoo makes good on TV

arn4.pngFred the cockatoo provided some comic relief to the hard-boiled detective series Baretta. The 14" tall bird answered the phone with a human-sounding "hello," hung upside down from his perch to imitate a drunk, and could drink from a bottle. Fred was played by Lala, a cockatoo who was found by Los Angeles customs officials being smuggled inside a cage full of chickens from Hong Kong. He was given to animal trainer Ray Berwick, who named him "Lala" because at first other than intoning "la la la la," the bird only spoke Chinese. However, Berwick discovered that his bird (estimated to be about 20 years old) was a prodigy; he immediately began imitating the cat and dog sounds he heard from his master's menagerie, and he soon learned how to ride a tiny bike and walk on a treadmill. After Baretta went off the air, Lala was a featured performer at Universal Studio's animal show. He lived to the ripe old age of 70.

Want more back stories of TV Animals? Click here to see the Tails behind the Tales, Part I.

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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.”