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7 TV Celebrities Your Parents Loved

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The trailer for the new movie Julie & Julia brings back fond memories. Julia Child was the first voice impression I perfected as a teenager. My kids have no idea who she was. At the same time, they know who Billy Mays was and I didn't until his recent death made the news. That caused me to think about the celebrities my generation shared and of whom those of you under 35 probably have no experience. It didn't take long to think of a half-dozen people who achieved television fame in the 60s, 70s, and 80s even though they weren't actors or singers.

1. Euell Gibbons

Say the name Euell Gibbons and people of a certain age will tell you that many parts of a pine tree are edible. Born in 1911, Gibbons helped his family through the Depression by gathering wild foods. As an adult, he traveled the country, trying out various jobs and homes and always foraged for food growing wild. His first book, "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" became a classic. Gibbons was regarded with respect by the natural food movement. His appearances on TV shows and in commercials made him a household name, and the subject of jokes and parodies. Gibbons died in 1975 at age 64.

2. Clara Peller

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Many Baby Boomers who wouldn't recognize the name Clara Peller will know who she is as soon as they hear her say, "Where's the Beef?" The Wendy's ad campaign that began in 1984 made Peller a star. She was 80 years old before she began her acting career. "Where's the Beef?" became a nationwide catch phrase, and Peller appeared on talk shows, other commercials, and even in a couple of movies using the phrase (or something close to it) for comedic purposes. Peller died in 1987 at age 85.

3. Justin Wilson

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Louisiana native Justin Wilson made a career of telling Cajun stories and jokes, but his biggest fame came from cooking shows he did for PBS. Wilson's Cajun idioms and delivery as well as the stories he told while cooking kept the audience glued to their sets, waiting to hear the catchphrase "I gar-on-teee!" Wilson was 87 when he died in 2001. See a clip of Wilson in action.

4. Dr. Ruth Westheimer

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Dr. Ruth make sex easier to talk about. Before Dr. Ruth, no one said "penis" in public, and we weren't all that sure how to pronounce "vagina" because even our sex education teachers used euphemisms. Her radio show Sexually Speaking took off in 1980 and led to a syndicated show and then television. The 4'7" sex therapist with the cute accent reminded us of our grandmothers, which made hearing her advice even more fun. What a lot of people didn't know was that her life before becoming a sex icon was even more amazing. Dr. Ruth was born in Germany in 1928 and was sent to an orphanage to escape the Nazis. Both her parents died in concentration camps. She emigrated to Palestine at age 17 and lived in a kibbutz. She joined the Haganah and served as a sniper in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Ruth Siegel, as she was named then, was wounded by an exploding shell and spent months in recovery. Her formal education began in 1950, which led to several degrees and a career as a sex educator and television personality. Dr. Ruth is still active at age 81.

5. Marlin Perkins

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Marlin Perkins hosted the nature show Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom from 1963 to 1985. He was a respected zoologist and zoo curator, and had accompanied Sir Edmund Hilary on a 1960 Himalayan expedition to find the yeti. Perkins' more than two decades in the national spotlight made him a spokesman for the conservation movement, and he helped popularize the idea of protecting endangered species. As the years went by, Perkins handed more and more of the fieldwork for the show off to co-host Jim Fowler, which led to affectionate parody and running jokes. The show itself was unpredictable, with the animals sometimes upstaging the hosts. Perkins died in 1986 at the age of 81.

6. Bob Ross

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Bob Ross is one bygone celebrity that mental_floss readers are familiar with, whether or not they ever saw him in his heyday. He was the host of The Joy of Painting on PBS from 1983 to 1994. He always completed a painting in the alloted half-hour or less, impressing everyone with his speed and confidence. Ross used the wet-on-wet oil painting technique, where layers of paint could be partially mixed and shaded because all the painting was done before any paint was allowed to dry. He described his landscapes as happy places, and encouraged viewers to lift their spirits through painting. Ross died in 1995 at age 52. You can still buy painting kits and supplies through his website.

7. Julia Child

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Julia Child was America's first celebrity chef. She was born in 1912 and served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II handling classified communications. After the war, Child went to cooking school in France, where she teamed up with two other chefs to open a school of their own and published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. Her first TV show premiered in 1963. Child had several series on PBS up through the 1990s, drawing an audience who wanted to cook for the joy and pleasure of it. They also loved the chef with her inimitable voice and laid-back personality. Child died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday. Her kitchen is now a part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, and can be seen in this interactive site. You can watch Child cook and listen to her marvelous delivery in several videos.

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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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