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A Belated Goodbye to Guiding Light

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Last Friday marked the end of an era—a very long era—with the final episode of the world's longest running soap opera and continuous story, Guiding Light. The CBS show closed after 72 years and 15,762 episodes, garnering 39 Daytime Emmys for the show itself and 30 more for the actors and actresses. Plus it launched the careers of the likes of Kevin Bacon, Calista Flockhart, Hayden Panettiere and James Earl Jones.

Guiding Light began shining in 1937, the brainchild of erstwhile Hollywood actress and successful radio actress Irna Phillips. Phillips was already an established name in the soap game, having virtually invented the genre of melodramas involving ensemble casts in increasingly bizarre circumstances. It was Phillips who pioneered the whole idea of an open-ended serialized format and the cliffhangers, and dictated that the more dramatic bits be punctuated by thudding organ music. (The descriptor, "soap opera," came after major cleaning product and hygiene companies like Proctor & Gamble began sponsoring the tortured melodramas.)

Set in the fictional Midwestern town of Springfield, Guiding Light began as a 15-minute radio show on NBC, centering on a widowed small-town pastor and the trials and tribulations of his flock.

The titular "guiding light" referred to the lamp the pastor would leave on in his window, a beacon of hope in troubled times. GL was one of the first soaps to boast "ripped from the headlines" plotlines—early on in her career, Phillips would write to the heads of charities like the Red Cross and Child Welfare, determine the major issues those groups were facing, and then fashion them into melodramatic story arcs. (GL would also help highlight the plight of another, oft overlooked group of people—those who have returned from the dead, typically after a fiery car crash, at just the right moment).

In 1941, sponsor Proctor & Gamble cancelled the show, prompting 75,000 letters of protest from angry fans; only 11 weeks later, the show was back. In 1952, CBS picked up the show for TV, dropped the pastor, and kept Phillips on as writer. (Read more about Phillips here.)

GL would weather the 1970s and '80s storm of ill-fated soaps looking to enter what was then TV's richest market, but today's viewers seemed to have tired of daytime soaps. CBS pulled the plug on GL after the dying program's viewers fell to 2.1 million, making it the least watched of all the network soaps. However, GL's decline and eventual death is symptomatic of a general plummeting for the daytime network soaps, of which only seven now survive.

But let's remember the good times, while we can. Here are a few memorable moments in daytime TV history:

First gay man on US daytime TV

As The World Turns, arguably one of the more conservative daytime soaps, became the first of them to introduce a gay man as a central character, with Hank Elliot in 1988. The same soap became the first to show two gay men kissing in 2007, when its characters Luke and Noah—two young, very attractive young men—finally kissed in August. But viewers were soon frustrated because the two, despite declaring their love for each other under the mistletoe at Christmas, didn't kiss again until months later.

Even Liz Taylor a fan

Say the names Luke and Laura to anyone who was generally conscious in the "˜70s and "˜80s, and they'll know instantly who you're talking about. Luke Spencer and Laura Webber of General Hospital were the first and the best of the soap supercouples, so beloved that even Elizabeth Taylor was a fan. She even guest starred during their wedding episode.

Talking about AIDS in Africa

In 2006, one of the most popular soap operas in South African television decided to address one of the most important issues in South Africa—HIV/AIDS. Isidingo head writer Greig Coetzee decided to have one of his main characters, a beautiful woman who has already had a pretty crappy life, even by soap standards (she was kidnapped, in an abusive relationship, lost a baby), be diagnosed with HIV in an attempt to erase some of the stigma against the disease. In the US, in the 1980s, soap operas were some of the first shows to deal with characters suffering from HIV/AIDS, in the same way that they were some of the first shows to deal with issues such as split personality disorders, alien abductions, and exorcisms.

Can't we all just get along? Not on a soap opera

In 1989, NBC's Generations was billed as the first interracial soap opera, moving beyond the typical soap milieu of rich, white families into the world of black and white families. Unfortunately, the program lasted only 13 months before NBC pulled the plug, citing low viewer turn-out and poor ratings.
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Are you a fan of any soaps? Or do you remember any pivotal soap moments or story lines, like Luke and Laura's wedding or Vicki's split personality? Or know of other big stars who got their start in the soap opera world? Discuss!


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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.