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4 Simpsons Controversies That Didn't End in Lawsuits

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If you're a typical 21st century citizen, you've surely thought about suing The Simpsons for something. Maybe you're Tracy Ullman and you want some of the money you helped to spawn ("I breast-fed those little devils.")

Maybe you're a Russian father who sued a TV network for showing The Simpsons (and Family Guy)—you thought the shows were "morally degenerate" and were responsible for your son calling his mother a "toad."

Or maybe you're the Fox News Channel, threatening a suit after the show satirized your news crawls. Of course, if you're Fox News, you deny Matt Groening's claim about the threat, though Groening notes, "But now Fox has a new rule that we can't do those little fake news crawls on the bottom of the screen in a cartoon because it might confuse the viewers into thinking it's real news."

But it can't all be about money and lawsuits (especially since The Simpsons seems to win every time). So here are four Simpsons controversies that weren't settled in a courtroom (R.I.P., Mr. Hutz).

1. "I will not defame New Orleans"

Bart's Blackboard

Scholar Jonathan Gray argues that The Simpsons uses "hyper-stereotypes," which could get them in trouble. Not surprisingly, they've had to apologize a few times for perceived defamation. Some in Australia objected to "Bart vs. Australia" and many New Orleans residents did not like the first song in "Oh, Streetcar!"—the send-up of A Streetcar Named Desire—which indicated that the city was "home of pirates, drunks and whores . . . [and] tacky, overpriced souvenir stores." The writer, Jeff Martin, explained that the song was a parody of the opening number in Sweeney Todd, which paints London in a bad light. This particular problem resulted in an apology via chalkboard gag—"I will not defame New Orleans."

Brazil's rancor over being portrayed as home to thieves, kidnappers, and diseased monkeys in "Blame it on Lisa" did not rate the same mea culpa. The official tourism bureau almost sued, claiming that the episode would hurt tourism and undermine their $18 million dollar advertising campaign.

Perhaps the threat of a lawsuit is what led to producer James Brooks' strange apology: "We apologize to the lovely city and people of Rio de Janeiro, and if that doesn't settle the issue, Homer Simpson offers to take on the President of Brazil on Fox's Celebrity Boxing."

The Simpsons continued to agitate Brazil in later seasons, referring again to monkey infestations, indicating that a monkey was the head of tourism there, and calling Brazil "the most disgusting" place the family had ever visited.

2. The Simpsons: We've made some...changes

20th Century Fox Television

We watch the Super Bowl for the ads, and we watch The Simpsons for the Super Bowl ad parodies, right? In "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday," we see a scene familiar from an old ZZ Top video—sexy women coming out to do their job at a full-service gas station in the desert. The camera zooms onto one woman's cleavage, revealing her crucifix necklace. Cue voiceover: "The Catholic Church: We've made some . . . changes." Complaints (some organized) ensued, leading to the removal of "Catholic" in reruns of the show. The Catholic League noted in their 1999 Report on Anti-Catholicism: "One of the TV shows that used to bother [us], "˜The Simpsons,' no longer does."

3. The Simpsons vs. George H.W. Bush

20th Century Fox Television

The Simpsons has made fun of all recent Presidents (from Nixon on) and has taken a few shots at some of the famous and forgotten ones who came before, but they have a special relationship with Bush Sr. Surprisingly, this began with Barbara, who in a 1990 interview with People, said The Simpsons was "the dumbest thing [she] had ever seen." The writers at the show had Marge send off a letter defending her family (and implying that certainly Washington had some dumber people/things to see). Mrs. Bush wrote a prompt, polite response.

The next year, 1991, the Bushes were featured in "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington." Barbara gave a private tour of her bathroom and George moved decisively to remove a corrupt congressman when he learned through the pipeline that "a little girl [was] losing faith in democracy."

The real controversy began January 27th, 1992, when Bush declared to a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters: "We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." The Simpsons quickly wrote and animated a new sequence for "Stark Raving Dad," which would be rerun three days later. Bart and his family watch the clip of Bush's speech and Bart replies, "Hey, we're just like the Waltons. We're praying for an end of the depression, too."

It was not until four years later that The Simpsons got the final word—in "Two Bad Neighbors," George and Barbara move in across the street to the Simpsons. While George immediately takes a liking to Ned Flanders, he dislikes Bart, whom he sees as disrespectful.

Bush: You know, in my day, little boys didn't call their elders by their first names.

Bart: Yeah, well, welcome to the 20th century, George.

The episode casts Bart as Dennis the Menace and George as cranky Mr. Wilson until Bart accidentally destroys Bush's hand-typed memoirs, in which he claims, "And since I'd achieved all my goals as President in one term, there was no need for a second."

Bush spanks Bart and won't apologize for interfering with Homer's parenting. This leads to an escalation of tension and pranks until the inevitable fistfight in the sewer. The Bushes move away after Barbara forces Bush to apologize in front of Mikhail Gorbachev (after which Homer demands an apology "for the tax hike"). Homer gets along much better with his next neighbor, Gerald Ford.

4. Bart's Doodle

At the end of the "138th Episode Spectacular," host Troy McClure gives the audience a montage of what its always wanted: "hard-core nudity!" We were disappointed to see just a collection of the familiar bare backsides of our favorite characters. Hundreds of episodes later, the show rewarded our patience and our anti-prurience by giving us a full-frontal Bart in The Simpsons Movie. This almost earned the film an R rating (instead of the PG 13) and stirred up enough controversy to generate pre-movie buzz.
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Dr. Karma Waltonen teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, where she also teaches a freshman seminar on The Simpsons. She is co-authoring a book on teaching The Simpsons. Although she's a card-carrying Simpsonologist, she also works on literature, television, film, and popular culture through the ages. If you want more of Dr. Karma, you can find her at dr-karma.com.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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