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Revisiting 8 Sesame Street Rumors

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Are Bert & Ernie lovers? Is Cookie Monster becoming 'Veggie Monster'? Here's a look at 8 nagging Sesame Street rumors and whether there's any truth behind them.

1. Bert & Ernie Are Lovers

Sure, Bert and Ernie are two happy-go-lucky bachelors who happen to share a bedroom, but that doesn't mean there's anything going on beneath the sheets (which, knowing Ernie, are most likely littered with cookie crumbs). The duo have become unofficial poster-Muppets for gay rights, most likely because of their penchant for sharing, the way they squabble like an old married couple, and for loving each other against all odds. Sesame Workshop has been releasing statements on the subject since 1993, in which they refute any arguments that Bert and Ernie are gay, or that they have any sexuality at all.


Even Ernie himself (as performed by Steve Whitmire) said, "All that stuff about me and Bert? It's not true. We're both very happy, but we're not gay," when asked about their relationship. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, "No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck." And if you can't take a Muppet's word for it, who can you trust?

2. Muppet = Marionette + Puppet

What is a Muppet? According to Homer Simpson, "It's not quite a mop, and it's not quite a puppet"¦ but man! So to answer your question, I don't know." Homer may have been on to something. Not with the mop thing, but by claiming to not know.

For years, people have spread the rumor that Jim Henson coined the word "Muppet" by combining "marionette" and "puppet." When asked about his portmanteau, Henson always claimed that he just found the word amusing, and that there was no hidden meaning.

However, interviews from early in Henson's career have recently resurfaced in which he confirms that the marionette-puppet rumors are true.

So did Jim change his mind about the origins of "Muppet" once it started to become a household word? Or did he bend the truth early in his career to avoid sounding pretentious? The world may never know.

3. There's an HIV-Positive Muppet

kami
In 2002, Sesame Workshop released a statement saying that they would be introducing an HIV-positive Muppet to Sesame Street. What most people in the U.S. missed was that Kami, the Muppet in question, would not be appearing on the domestic version of Sesame Street, but the South African version, which is called Takalani Sesame. The producers of Takalani Sesame agreed that an HIV-positive Muppet would be beneficial because South Africa has the highest percentage of AIDS-infected people in the world, many of which are children. People became outraged that PBS would allow a children's show to feature an HIV-positive character, and news sources and pundits went to town on the story. Kami never appeared on the American Sesame Street, though she has proven to be a very successful character on Takalani Sesame.

4. Brian Henson Became Kermit

When Jim Henson died suddenly in 1990, many people believed that his signature character, Kermit the Frog, was passed down to his son, Brian. Though Brian was heavily involved with the Jim Henson Company and often performed as a puppeteer, he did not perform the frog. That honor went to Steve Whitmire, who started with the Muppets on The Muppet Show, and is best known for characters such as Rizzo the Rat and Fraggle Rock's Wembley. Brian did become President of the Jim Henson Company, and later directed several feature films starring his father's creations. Though he didn't take over the Kermit puppet, he get the chance to perform one of his father's characters: The Muppet Newsman. Brian performed the Newsman at The Muppet Show Live in 2001 and in the video game, Muppet Party Cruise.

5. They Were Plotting Ernie's Death

In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson's death, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, in the fashion of Mr. Hooper's death on an earlier episode of Sesame Street. The cause of death in these rumors ranged from a fatal disease to a car accident. Thankfully for us (and thankfully for his buddy Bert), this was not the case. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear "Save Ernie" beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story. Ernie is alive and well today, and continues to pester his roommate on a daily basis.

6. It's a Wonderful Life Helped Name Bert & Ernie

Every Christmas when people revisit It's a Wonderful Life, they hear the names of Ernie the cab driver and Bert the cop and think that it's too much of a coincidence for both sets of characters to share the same names. According to Jerry Juhl, the head writer for the Muppets for over 30 years, Jim Henson did not have much of a memory for details like that, so he wouldn't have remembered the names of two minor characters from an old film. Supposedly, when he saw the Bert and Ernie puppets, he looked at them and decided that this one looks like a "Bert" and that one looks like an "Ernie."

The rumor was referenced in the 1996 special Elmo Saves Christmas, in which Bert and Ernie walk by a TV set that's playing It's a Wonderful Life, which just so happens to be set to a scene where George Bailey says both of their names. Bert and Ernie were just as surprised as any of us.

7. Those Toys Sure Have Potty-Mouths

No, the Cookie Monster Dump Truck Driver doll does not say, "Time to f*ck." No, the Potty Time with Elmo doll does not say, "Uh oh, who wants to die?" No, the Talking Elmo doll does not say, "Beat Up Elmo." And no, the Elmo Knows Your Name doll did not threaten a young boy by saying, "Kill James." But damn if they all didn't sound like it.

8. He's Becoming the Vegetable Monster

SometimesFoodWhen people discover that I'm a Muppet fanatic, the first thing many of them say is "OMG, did you hear that they're turning Cookie Monster into the Vegetable Monster?? This is an outrage! My childhood is dying!" In 2005, Sesame Street focused its 36th season on healthy eating habits and featured a song called "A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food." Because of the song, people naturally assumed that Cookie Monster would be trading in his chocolate chips for an anthropomorphic stalk of broccoli. The song was sung by Hoots the Owl, not Cookie Monster, and ended with Cookie Monster claiming that "Now is sometimes," and devouring a plate of his favorite snack. The kids at home may have gotten the message, but Cookie Monster obviously missed the point (and subsequently remained unchanged).

This is far from the first time Cookie Monster has touted the benefits of a non-cookie diet. In 1974, he was featured in an ad for The Nutrition Council about healthy eating:

In 1987 he rapped (yes, rapped) about fruits and veggies with the Run-DMC spoof, "Healthy Food." And these don't even begin to skim the surface of the many different things Cookie Monster has devoured over the years, which include flatware, telephones, microphones, and letters of the alphabet.

In case anyone was still on the fence about Cookie Monster's status as a cookivore, Matt Lauer visited Sesame Street in 2007 to ask him directly. Cookie Monster refuted the rumor, claiming that "you members of media blow story WAY out of proportion." A year later, he visited the set of The Colbert Report to defend his stance on cookies once again. As you can see, Cookie Monster's status (and name) remain entirely intact.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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