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Honoring the Service of Agent 86, The Professor & Other TV Vets

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As someone who has worn out more than one snooze alarm button, "better late than never" has become my motto, and in that spirit I'd like to add a TV twist to Stacy's wonderful Veteran's Day post. So even though Veteran's Day has come and gone, I say it's never too late to recognize those who have served our country.

1. Eddie Albert

Saving-Marines-while-ducking-enemy-fire was the place for him
albert.jpgEddie Albert had appeared on Broadway and in some 100 films before he landed the lead role as the New York attorney longing to live the simple farming life on the sitcom Green Acres. During World War II, Albert served in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant and eventually worked as a salvage officer on the troop ship Sheridan. However, military planning blunders exposed the Marines being dropped to heavy gunfire during what would be later be called the Battle of Tarawa. Albert personally plucked injured Marines out of the water while ducking enemy fire. His commanding officer injured, he took charge and led four other crafts out to both provide fire support and rescue a total of 46 injured Marines. Albert received a Bronze Star for his heroic efforts.

2. Don Adams

Missed premature death by "that much"

get-smart.jpgActor/comedian Don Adams was best known for his role as bumbling Agent 86 on TV's Get Smart. He also provided the voice for two famous cartoon characters: Tennessee Tuxedo and Inspector Gadget. But he almost missed an acting career by "that much."

Adams was born Donald Yarmy, but changed his last name when he got tired of being last in line in an alphabetical-order world. He wasn't much interested in academics, so when World War II broke out, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Marines when he was only 17. He was fighting in Guadalcanal when he became terribly ill. The diagnosis: Blackwater Fever, a usually fatal complication of malaria. Because men with Blackwater Fever always died, a sentry was posted beside Adams' hospital bed "“ not for security purposes, but because hospital space on Guadalcanal was so scarce, they wanted to know the minute he died so that his cot could be used for another patient. Four days later, for reasons no doctor could explain, Adams walked out of the hospital. Adams went home and spent the rest of his Marine tenure as a drill instructor, which is what helped him to develop his peculiar staccato way of speaking.

3. Johnny Carson

Welcome to the Navy, Johnny!!
johnny-carson.jpgLate night king Johnny Carson enlisted in the Navy as an apprentice seaman enrolled in the V-5 program, which trained Navy and Marine pilots. He was commissioned as an ensign and was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania. World War II was already drawing to a close when Carson enlisted, and when he reported for combat duty on August 14, 1945, it turned out to be the last day of the War. However, his ship was sent to Guam to assist a damaged warship, and as a junior officer, his assignment was to help with the removal of the bodies of 20 dead sailors—an image that would haunt him the rest of his life.

4. Russell Johnson

The Professor's real-life island crash landing
professor.jpgRussell Johnson may have given off a nerdy sort of vibe as the Professor on Gilligan's Island, but in real life he was no pencil-neck. He served as a gunner on bombers during World War II, and in 1945 his B-24 Liberator was shot down in the Philippines, forcing a crash landing on the island of Mindanao. He broke both his ankles and received a Purple Heart. He was also awarded the Air Medal with Oak Leaf cluster, the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of War ribbon with four battle stars, and the Philippine Liberation Medal.

5. Montel Williams

More action than talk
montel-w.jpgHandling unruly guests is kid stuff for talk show host Montel Williams. Williams enlisted in the Marines in 1974, and was later accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy where he studied Mandarin Chinese and got a degree in general engineering with a minor in International Security Affairs. He spent three years aboard submarines as a cryptologic officer. When he left the Navy, it was with the rank of lieutenant, as well as the Navy Achievement Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Navy Commendation Medal.

Step into Kara's TVHolic vault for many more TV tales.

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