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5 TV Aunts Worth Remembering

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As a follow-up to this post about TV uncles, we're giving equal time to the TV aunts who've shaped our lives (or just plain made us laugh) over the years.

1. Aunt Esther

Fred Sanford's sister-in-law Esther didn't show up until midway through Season Two; until that time Fred's main comic foil was Aunt Ethel (played by Beah Richards). But Richards didn't quite have the necessary wicked wit with which to dress down Redd Foxx, so he brought in his old pal LaWanda Page. Page had started out working as an exotic dancer billed as "The Bronze Goddess of Fire," but when she met Foxx on the "chitlin' circuit" he saw potential in her off-stage raunchy sense of humor and encouraged her to try her hand at stand-up. As Aunt Esther, she more than held her own with Fred Sanford, dismissing him as a "fish-eyed fool" whenever he spat out one of his many insults ("Why don't you press your face in some dough and make gorilla cookies?")

2. Aunt Bee

aunt2.pngFrances Bavier grew up in New York and appeared in several films as well as on the Broadway stage during her career, but she will forever be "Aint Bee" (as her nephew Andy Taylor called her). The pilot episode of The Andy Griffith Show showed Beatrice Taylor arriving to help take care of Opie after the marriage of Rose, the Taylor family's housekeeper. Andy explained that Aunt Bee had raised him, so she knew a lot about little boys. After Andy married Helen Crump, Aunt Bee went to live with Sam Jones, another widower (what is it about Mayberry that kills off all the women-folk?), and his son, Mike, who were the main characters on the spin-off series Mayberry R.F.D.
Over the years, Bavier fell in love with the scenery in North Carolina and moved into a house in Siler City after she retired. Her estate was valued at approximately $700,000 after her death, yet she lived mostly in one small back room of her home, while letting her 14 cats rule the rest of the house.

3. Aunt Clara

aunt3.pngOf all Samantha's eccentric relatives on Bewitched, the loveably loopy Aunt Clara was the only one for whom her mortal husband Darrin had genuine affection. Aunt Clara always meant well, but she had trouble remembering the exact words to her spells, which resulted in complications such as accidentally bringing Benjamin Franklin back to life when attempting to conjure up an electrician to help fix a lamp. Actress Marion Lorne was born in Pennsylvania in 1883, but moved to England when she married British playwright Walter Hackett. She was the grande dame of the London stage for 25 years, and Hackett founded London's Whitehall Theatre (now Trafalgar Studios) in honor of his talented wife. Alfred Hitchcock (who cast her in his Strangers on a Train) once said of Lorne: "She was more than an actress in England; she was an institution."

4. Aunt Harriet

aunt4.pngPopular legend over the years has maintained that the character of Aunt Harriet was created for the Batman TV series in order to avoid any possible hints of a homosexual relationship between the two men living together at stately Wayne Manor. But Aunt Harriet was introduced in the DC comic book series two years before the television series debuted "“ she was brought in to care for Bruce and Dick after Alfred the butler died. Madge Blake didn't start acting until she was almost 50 years old; prior to that time she held several factory jobs, and during World War II she worked in Utah at the company developing the detonator for the atomic bomb. While she was under contract to play Larry Mondello's mom on Leave It to Beaver, she was offered the role of Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show, which she had to turn down. She recommended her good friend Frances Bavier to the TAGS producers.

5. Aunt Viv

aunt5.pngEven Jazz, who was never the sharpest knife on the butcher's block, noticed the difference at the beginning of Season Four on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: ""You know Mrs. Banks, ever since you had the baby, there's been something different about you." For the first three seasons of the show, Aunt Vivan was played by Janet Hubert-Whitten. The actress got pregnant, and her impending motherhood was written into the series. However, when she requested shorter work hours as her due date approached, Will Smith insisted that her paycheck be cut accordingly. According to Smith, that was just the tip of the iceberg. He told the Atlanta Journal in 1993: "I can say straight up that Janet Hubert wanted the show to be "˜The Aunt Viv of Bel-Air Show'"¦ She said once, "˜I've been in the business for 10 years and this snotty-nosed punk comes along and gets a show.'" Hubert sued Smith and NBC for defamation, and Daphne Maxwell-Reid became the new Aunt Viv. Unlike Hubert's outspoken career-woman who frequently stood up to Uncle Phil, Maxwell-Reid's Vivian not only got less screen time, she also portrayed the character as a quiet homemaker who usually acquiesced to her husband.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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