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A Brief History of the Jerry Lewis Telethon

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There's probably a special place in Hell reserved for those of us who watch Jerry Lewis's annual Labor Day Telethon strictly for laughs. After all, Jerry's humanitarian efforts over the years have raised over a billion dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, money which not only pays for research but also medical equipment and recreational camps for patients. But between Lewis' schmaltz, the live entertainment, the open bar in the Green Room and the sleep-deprived floor crew during the wee hours of the morning, hilarity of some sort always seems to ensue. Of course (in the interest of balanced reporting) we'll admit that there are plenty of somber moments as well"¦

Why Labor Day?

The first MDA Telethon was a 16-hour affair held at Carnegie Hall in 1955 and had a limited broadcast on DuMont station WABD. The television feed, however, wasn't interactive and mainly served to encourage folks to go down to Carnegie Hall and donate money.

By 1966 both TV and telephone technology had marched on and MDA decided to take advantage of the improvements; the organization proposed a 19-hour event, hosted by Lewis, to be broadcast from the Americana Hotel with a bank of telephone operators at the ready to accept donations from all over the New York broadcast area. They had to jump through a number of hoops first, including finding a station willing to donate its time and facilities. WNEW finally agreed, but the only timeslot they had available fell over Labor Day weekend. The city then balked at issuing a fund-raising permit, believing that most New Yorkers would be outside having fun over the holiday weekend and not watching television. The show ultimately did go on, and the telethon raised an amazing $1,002,114.

The tote board was not equipped to display dollar amounts in the millions, so Lewis had to climb a ladder and paint the numeral one in front of the other digits.

Martin and Lewis: Together Again

Jerry Lewis had been raising money for MDA long before his telethon hit the airwaves. And in those early days, his partner-in-comedy, Dean Martin, was right there with him, performing at various charity events to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy research. The comedy team of Martin and Lewis had been a powerhouse for 10 years, and their acrimonious parting in 1956 was a huge bombshell to Hollywood and fans alike. The two didn't speak for 20 years until mutual pal Frank Sinatra arranged a tearful yet somewhat tense reunion during Jerry's 1976 Telethon:

The Entertainment

The Telethon was always a bit top-heavy with Borscht Belt-type entertainers, but occasionally some stellar acts donated their time for Jerry's Kids. This clip of the Jackson Five is interesting not only for their high-energy live performance of "Dancing Machine," but also because Michael wasn't yet the almighty mystical MICHAEL JACKSON and the audience wasn't convulsed with hysteria by his mere presence. He had to actually work to get them on their feet.

John Lennon had always been a soft touch when it came to philanthropy, but most of the time he preferred to donate quietly without recognition or publicity. By 1972, however, his image was in serious need of repair "“ his name was now associated with extreme radical Yippie activists like Jerry Rubin and Angela Davis. Not the best company to keep when petitioning for a Green Card. In an effort to show the world (well, the U.S. government, anyway) that he was really a Nice Guy, he made a number of public appearances supporting various charities, including an appearance on Jerry's Telethon:

How did Jerry make sure he had more than just insomniacs and second-shift workers tuned in during the overnight hours of his telethon? One tactic was to have TV Guide list all the acts scheduled to appear but not list the specific times they'd be on. Maybe I'm seeing a plot where there is none, but"¦ back in 1979 I was a major Kiss fan, and I was naturally excited when I saw them listed among the Shecky Greenes and Buddy Hacketts that were going to appear on the telethon that Labor Day weekend. I didn't have a VCR at the time, so I had to watch the entire show, which meant staying up all night if I didn't want to miss them. And when they finally appeared, on Monday freakin' afternoon, they were on for less than thirty freakin' seconds. Not that I'm still bitter or anything.

Anyone who's read Mommie Dearest will probably doubt Joan Crawford's sincerity during her emotional performance on the 1968 telethon. Does she really have a place in her cold, cold heart for the disabled, or is she playing to the press and any casting directors in the audience? And is she gently leading Christina off stage, or yanking her by the arm?

The late Ed McMahon started working with Jerry on the telethon back in 1967. For the next 42 years, Ed would act not only as Jerry's on-air sparring partner (and occasional verbal punching bag), but he was also the glue that held the whole show together. Ed introduced guests, calculated donations in his head, took over hosting duties when Jerry caught the occasional 20-minute catnap, and hid Dean Martin in his dressing room in order to preserve the surprise factor for that 1976 broadcast. Jerry was unpredictable, especially after the first few hours, so Ed had to be prepared to jump in at any moment to "rescue" the broadcast lest Lewis overstep any FCC boundaries. Even in 2008, when McMahon was 85 years old, he still remained on alert during the entire telethon. Here is one of those overnight moments when the floor director forget to order a change of cameras; Ed can be seen mouthing the words on Jerry's cue cards, keeping careful track of the action.

Local Color

The tradition of cutting away to local affiliates during the telethon began in 1969. During the previous year's broadcast, producers noticed that WHEC in Rochester had a significantly higher amount of pledges than any other New York station. A call was made to station manager Glover Delaney to see what, if anything, the station had done differently. He confessed that he'd cut away from the national broadcast for a few minutes each hour to show the local volunteers answering phones at his station. A new tradition was immediately born, one which was expanded to not only feature phone-answerers, but also local celebrities and sponsors. Showing individual markets how MDA was working in their community made the pledges pour in, according to MDA president Robert Ross.

Do you have any telethon memories? Have you ever pledged a large amount of money just to hear your name read on TV? Feel free to take time out from your Labor Day barbecue to chime in, and maybe also make a pledge to help Jerry's Kids.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]