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4 Great American TV Shows Stolen from the British

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If British TV shows are so darned great, why do U.S. producers insist upon remaking them instead of showing the originals? There are plenty of reasons! For one thing, the shows make reference to political situations, local celebrities and places that are unknown to most Americans, so a lot of the jokes would fall flat. And then there's that pesky pronunciation thing "“ Left Ponders may not realize it, but they speak with a slight accent that some folks on the this side of the Atlantic find difficult to understand.

But we're really not criticizing the Brits, honest! Just take a look at how many of their great ideas we've "borrowed":

1. All in the Family

When All in the Family debuted on January 12, 1971, a nervous CBS ran a disclaimer prior to the opening credits, explaining that the purpose of the series was to demonstrate how absurd prejudice was. And the dialog was pretty shocking for its time "“ until then, no sitcom character had dared use derogatory terms like "spade" or "Hebe." But if Archie Bunker pushed the envelope when it came to discussing minorities, Alf Garnett licked it and stamped it. Alf Garnett was the main character on the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, the show on which Norman Lear based AITF.

Alf used more epithets than Archie ever dreamed of, and was far less loveable. However, there were similarities between the two characters: Alf called his wife Else the "Silly Old Moo," while Edith was Archie's "Dingbat." Alf despised his Liverpudlian son-in-law, whom he described as a "randy Scouse git;" Archie declared that his daughter's Polish-American hippie husband was a "Meathead" ("dead from the neck up"). Alf was devoted to the West Ham United football team; Archie loved midget wrestling. Both shows were huge hits in their home countries, with Till Death running 10 years and AITF nine. Compare and contrast a typical Alf/Archie discussion on race relations:

2. Three's Company

Man About the House debuted on Britain's ITV network in 1973. The sitcom was controversial from the get-go due to the plot: two young single women find a drunk man passed out in their bathtub after a party, and after finding out that he could cook and needed a place to live, they offered him their spare bedroom. The girls knew their landlord would frown on non-married tenants of the opposite sex sharing an apartment, so they hinted that their new roommate was gay. Sound familiar? Four years later ABC launched Three's Company, pretty much a play-by-play re-creation of its British parent. Even the names weren't changed very much to protect the innocent: Robin Tripp became Jack Tripper, Chrissy Plummer (along with her bustline) morphed into Chrissy Snow, and the landlords were still the Ropers. Despite the basic similarities between the two shows, the British version relied more on crisp writing and witty dialog than the slapstick and "jiggle" used to attract the American audience.

3. Sanford and Son

Steptoe and Son was a British sitcom about an aging, somewhat cranky but always wise "rag and bone man" and his argumentative son. The two lived together and even though the son had an occasional delusion of grandeur, he remained a partner in his father's junk business. Wilfrid Brambell played the scheming Albert Steptoe, whom his son often dismissed as a "dirty old man." (This running joke was referenced when Brambell played Paul McCartney's grandfather in A Hard Day's Night; it was often observed during the film that he was "very clean.")

When the show was revamped for American audiences, it became Sanford and Son, and while Redd Foxx's Fred Sanford was just as irascible as the elder Steptoe, the characters' personalities were reversed a bit in order to exploit Foxx's comedic abilities. His son, Lamont (lovingly referred to as "you big dummy" by his father), was usually the voice of reason when his father fell victim to a new con game or "get rich quick" scheme.

The Office

The pilot episode of the US version of The Office was a duplicate of the BBC series, with some minor changes in dialog (a reference to Camilla Parker-Bowles was changed to Hilary Clinton, for example). The reviews were decidedly mixed, with most critics dismissing it as a pale copy of the British series. As time went on, however, additional writers were brought on, the cast was expanded, and the overall tone took on a more American flavor. The British Office has an air of crushing depression; all the employees feel stuck in dead-end jobs, but luckily they find humor in their hopelessness. In the U.S. version, however, there is always a subtle undercurrent of hope among the workers. Even the lowliest drone likes to believe that if he at least gives the illusion of productivity, he can work his way up the corporate ladder.

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Have a comment on which show ended up better- the British or American version? Is there another show we've borrowed that you think should be on the list? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.