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5 Minor TV Characters who Hijacked the Show

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Ed note: we're having a few technical difficulties here, so we're highlighting a few best-of posts starting with this terrific one from Kara. Enjoy!

Things don't always work out as planned in Television Land. A snappy catchphrase, an adorable mannerism, a bodacious bust line"¦there's no telling what might capture the audience's attention. The problem is, it often comes at the expense of another actor.

1. The Fonz Upstages Opie

Picture 11.png The idea for a sitcom set in the 1950s was inspired by a vignette on the 1970s anthology series Love, American Style. One year after "Love and the Happy Days" aired, Ron Howard starred in the blockbuster film American Graffiti, which solidified his ability to play a retro-teenager. Howard had previously played "Opie" on The Andy Griffith Show, and with his recent film triumph under his belt, it was clear that he was the intended star of Happy Days. But the producers were caught by surprise when Fonzie, portrayed by Henry Winkler, who was only an occasional character during the first season started getting a substantial amount of press. Suddenly "Ayyyy" was on everyone's lips and you couldn't walk past a storefront without seeing some sort of Fonz replica giving the ol' thumbs up. The ABC brass even suggested changing the name of the show to Fonzie's Happy Days, but Henry Winkler himself vehemently opposed such a change. In fact, Henry has always staunchly credited the success of Happy Days to the work of entire cast, particularly Ron Howard and Tom Bosley.

2. Alex P. Keaton's Hostile Takeover

Picture 3.pngWhen Gary David Goldberg was casting Family Ties, a sitcom about liberal 60s-era parents raising 80s-era children, he envisioned Matthew Broderick for the role of Alex P. Keaton. But Broderick didn't want to leave New York for a long-term project, so Goldberg was left at square one. At the urging of a casting director, he gave a young Canadian actor named Michael J. Fox a second screen test, and reluctantly hired him (his infamous comment at the time about Fox was "There's a face you'll never see on a lunch box.") Much to everyone's surprise, Michael J. Fox had that on-screen charisma that quickly made him an audience favorite; he could deliver the most extreme right-wing political rhetoric and make it palatable because he was so darned cute. Meredith Baxter-Birney was miffed, because her understanding when she signed on for Family Ties was that the parents would be the focus of the series. But teen magazine profiles and posters can have a unique impact on a celebrity's "Q-factor," and soon many of the show's plots revolved around Alex. During the taping of the episode where Alex lost his virginity, the audience's laughter went on so long that the show ran 12 minutes overtime. Goldberg was standing backstage with Baxter-Birney at the time and commented, "If you want to leave the show, I'll understand."

3. Jack Tripper Gets Bested by a Blonde

Picture 2.pngWhen Three's Company was being cast, John Ritter was the only actor hired who any sort of name recognition, having played the Reverend Fordwick on The Waltons. Luckily, he also had a knack for slapstick comedy, and managed to make the most out of what was basically a one-joke role (a closet heterosexual living platonically with two beautiful young women). But even though Ritter was the acknowledged star of the show (and won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Jack Tripper), it was Suzanne Somers who got her picture on all the magazine covers and had her own mega-selling poster. Actually, as soon as Somers landed the role of Chrissy, she contacted powerhouse manager Jay Bernstein and begged him to take her on as a client. She wanted to be "bigger than Farrah," and although (according to Somers) Bernstein questioned her looks and her talent, he was impressed by her passion, and agreed to manage her. Of course, it probably helped that Somers also pledged to give him every penny of her salary from the first six episodes of Three's Company. Nevertheless, thanks to Bernstein's savvy promotion, soon every episode of Three's Company, no matter what the plot, focused heavily on Chrissy prancing around in tight T-shirts and short-shorts.

4. Yes, Urkel Did That

Picture 4.pngFamily Matters was officially a spin-off of Perfect Strangers (Harriette Winslow was the elevator operator at the Chicago Chronicle). The show was supposed to focus on the everyday trials and tribulations of a department store employee, her police officer husband, and their three children. Midway through Season One, their nerdy neighbor Steve Urkel (portrayed by Jaleel White) appeared, oversized glasses, suspenders, high-rise pants, squeaky voice and all. Urkel was originally intended as a one-episode character, but after White's initial appearance, studio audiences started chanting "Urkel! Urkel!" during subsequent tapings. Several first-season episodes were hastily re-written in order to feature the whiny-voiced, clumsy character. Interestingly enough, Jaleel White had been acting (mostly in commercials) since the age of three, and just prior to being cast as Urkel had told his mother that he wanted to quit the business in order to play JV basketball when he entered high school the next fall.

5. Mr. Kotter's Lukewarm Welcome (in comparison to John Travolta)

Picture 5.pngVeteran comic writer Alan Sacks had seen stand-up comic Gabe Kaplan's act a few times and thought that there might be a viable sitcom to be mined out of Kaplan's tales of his days in remedial high school classes. When previewing Welcome Back, Kotter in front of test audiences, network brass noted that John Travolta (whose character was then known as "Eddie Barbarina") elicited unsolicited random squeals from the crowd and decided on the strength of a possible teen heartthrob plus Kaplan's jokes to green light the series. Travolta, for his part, didn't discourage the Tiger Beat aspect of his fame, but he also craved acceptance as a bona fide actor, and he spent much of his Kotter salary on a high-priced agent, who landed him progressively larger film roles, from The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, to Carrie, to Saturday Night Fever. By the fourth (and ultimately final) season of Welcome Back, Kotter, John Travolta was billed as a "special guest star" and appeared in less than half of that season's episodes.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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