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8 Great TV Christmas Specials (But Not The Ones You're Probably Thinking)

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As Christmas approaches, there is one thing on which we can always rely, year after year: festive television specials. For those who are tired of cute Christmas episodes where everyone from the Brady Bunch to Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets into the festive spirit, or don't need to see yet another broadcast of the much-loved Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, here is some alternative Christmas programming, with clips that are definitely worth watching this holiday season.

1. Dragnet "“ The Big Little Jesus (1953)

Even in the early days of television, drama series had Christmas episodes. This one, from Oscar-winning screenwriter Richard Breen, was so popular that it was first heard on the radio serial, filmed for the 1950s TV series, and filmed again (as "The Christmas Story") for a 1967 series revival. In the story, Sgt Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and his partner (Ben Alexander in the first TV series, Harry Morgan in the second) spend their Christmas Eve looking for an almost "worthless" statue of the Baby Jesus that has been stolen from the Old Mission Plaza Church, hoping to return it in time for Christmas mass. They discover that it was borrowed by a young child, who had been given a wagon for Christmas, donated by charity, and wanted to take the baby Jesus on the first ride. "Paquito's family"¦" explains the priest, "they're poor." Friday looks at the Nativity scene. "Are they, father?" he says.

2. Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas (1977)

Christmas variety shows were an inescapable part of Christmas for about 30 years, hosted by Perry Como (who did no less than 39 Christmas specials), John Denver, Bob Hope, The Carpenters and many others. One of the more serious, without the usual comedy sketches and "surprise" appearances by Santa, was Johnny Cash's 1977 Christmas special, including an all-star tribute to Cash's friend Elvis Presley, who had died a few months earlier. That same year, however, provided an even more unusual, and even more moving, Christmas show. For his sixteenth Christmas special in a row, legendary singer Bing Crosby wanted to sing with a young star. As he was on a concert tour of London, someone suggested 30-year-old David Bowie, who was then one of Britain's more offbeat glam-rock artists. Bowie happened to be a huge Crosby fan, so he jumped at the chance. In a segment filmed on September 11, they sang "Little Drummer Boy," which was perfect for Crosby's crooning, but as Bowie's voice was higher, he also sang Peace on Earth as part of the same number. Bing was impressed by the "clean-cut kid" and gave him his phone number. Sadly, the crooner died a month later, giving extra poignancy to the special when it was shown in November.

3. The West Wing — In Excelsis Deo (1999)

In this popular episode, Toby (Richard Schiff) discovers that a homeless man who had died wearing one of his old coats was a Korean War veteran. Using the authority of the president's office, Toby arranges a full military funeral at the Arlington National Cemetery. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is not happy, afraid that this could create precedent. "I can only hope so," says Toby. He attends the funeral, along with the president's secretary, Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), who reveals that she lost her twin sons in Vietnam on Christmas Eve 1970. Also in attendance: Arlington superintendent John C. Metzler, Jr, appearing as himself "“ presumably the only time he has attended a funeral for a fictitious person. The episode was made with the Pentagon's full cooperation.

[We couldn't find an embeddable version of this episode, but you can watch it on YouTube.]

4. Mystery Science Theater 3000 "“ Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1991)

The cult show Mystery Science Theater 3000 was about a janitor and two robots who are trapped on a space satellite and forced to watch terrible B-movies. The movies were real, and the show was an excuse to play them with running commentary from the three characters. Twice the series had Christmas episodes. Santa Claus (1959), the focus of the 1993 episode, was a very obscure, badly dubbed Spanish film in which Santa does battle with a demon sent to Earth to make all children naughty. But Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) was already notorious. Despite awful reviews ("Absolutely the worst science-fiction flick ever made, bar none!" announced the fanzine The Monster Times), it was re-released every Christmas for years, easily returning its $200,000 budget many times over. In this film, Martian invaders kidnap Santa (played by minor Broadway actor John Call) to save their own children from misery. Though Santa defeats the villains (as the title suggests), one of the happier Martians takes over as the local Santa. It finishes with the boppy song "Hooray for Santa Claus" ("He's fat and round, but jumping jiminy, he can climb down any chiminey.")

5. Xena "“ A Solstice Carol (1996)

How does a TV show do a Christmas special if it's set in the days before Christ? Very few series have had that dilemma, but one exception was Xena: Warrior Princess, set in ancient Greece. In this episode, Xena and Gabrielle visit a kingdom ruled by the miserly King Silvus, who plans to close down an orphanage and has banned Winter Solstice celebrations. In a nod to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, they disguise themselves as various ghosts and do some play-acting in his bedroom to convince him to change his ways. Gabrielle even gives a speech about Winter Solstice that could easily have been written for a Brady Bunch Christmas episode: "On this special night, a new light, a new chance, is born to us all. So it's a time for miracles and goodwill towards all living creatures."

[The clip of this episode has been removed from YouTube. If you find one, please leave the link in the comments.]

6. Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988)

A Christmas Carol is a ritual of Christmas television. Many versions of have been filmed, starring everyone from impersonator Rich Little (playing Scrooge as W.C. Fields) to the Muppets. But the funniest was probably the British comedy Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988), about Ebenezer Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), a kindly and generous shopkeeper in Victorian London. By the episode's end, the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane, looking like he did as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) unwittingly inspires him to become selfish and cruel "“ and stop being exploited by everyone else. Bah humbug, indeed!

7. Doctor Who — The Christmas Invasion (2005)

The BBC science fiction series Doctor Who is almost as much of a British institution as Christmas TV specials. For the past three years, they have combined the two, so that Doctor saves the world from alien invaders each year at Christmas. As a result, everyone is too scared to leave their houses during the festive season. The first Christmas special, however, had a bonus for fans. After his all-too-brief stint in the title role, actor Christopher Eccleston was leaving the series, and the Christmas special properly introduced his successor, David Tennant. After spending half the episode bed-ridden, as the vicious Sycorax race prepares to subjugate humanity, the new Doctor appears just in the the nick of time, still dressed in his pyjamas. "Did you miss me?" he smiles "“ and fans cheered in living rooms all over Britain. From that moment, his friends (and the viewers) know that the situation was all under control.

8. A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-1978)

In case you want a break from Christmas revelry, the BBC had just the thing for audiences in the 1970s: scare the life out of them! From 1971 to 1978, they would adapt a spooky story, usually by horror-fantasy writer M.R. James, into a truly chilling TV play. (One of them, The Signalman, was from a story by Charles Dickens, who was no stranger to Christmas ghosts.) During Christmas week 1972, in case one Christmas ghost story wasn't enough, they also showed The Stone Tape, written by horror / science fiction master Nigel Kneale, about a group of scientists who move into a haunted mansion. The strange Christmas tradition of visiting haunted houses even reached The X-Files. In the 1998 episode "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas," the ghosts of two ill-fated lovers (played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin) try to force Mulder and Scully to kill each other. Of course, they fail in their lethal quest"¦ unlike many of the ghouls in A Ghost Story for Christmas. Here's a clip from The Signalman:

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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]