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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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