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RIP Soupy Sales (1926-2009)

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My addiction to television started very early and my parents were enablers, even though that term hadn't been coined at the time. Mom tells me that I regularly refused my strained carrots unless she placed my high chair in front of the TV and tuned it to Channel 7 for Lunch with Soupy. The antics of White Fang, Black Tooth, and Pookie, not to mention the constant pies in the face, so mesmerized me that I ate anything Mom shoveled my way. Sadly, Sales (who'd been ill for several years) has left us, but here are a few Soupy facts that will hopefully invoke some warm memories for all you good little birdbaths:

From Milt to Soup

He was born Milton Supman to parents who had a habit of bestowing nicknames on their offspring.

Milt's older brothers had been dubbed "Hambone" and "Chicken Bone," so when he came along he was unofficially christened "Soup Bone." Soup Bone was eventually shortened to "Soupy," and when he got his first professional job as a disc jockey he adopted "Hines" as his surname. As he gained popularity, management was worried that "Hines" sounded too much like Heinz, a company that sold soup. Soupy forestalled any potential conflict of interest entanglements by changing his last name to "Sales."

White Fang

Soupy originally created the character of White Fang (later known as the meanest dog in all of Dee-troit) when he was in the Navy. Stationed aboard the USS Randall, he'd put together an onboard entertainment show broadcast via the ship's PA system. Someone had an LP of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Soupy used a sound effect on that record of a dog's growl as the "voice" of White Fang. Soupy continued to use that growl after he left the Navy and landed a spot on WXYZ-TV in Detroit with the show that eventually evolved into Lunch with Soupy. Sound effects at that time were all provided by vinyl records, and it was the responsibility of the Electronic Transcription person to have all the records cued up and ready to play. One afternoon, the ET frantically mouthed down from his booth to stagehand Clyde Adler "I can't find the record!" Adler, whose right arm encased in an elbow-length glove fashioned from an old winter coat served as White Fang on-camera, spontaneously uttered gutteral "Ruh-O-Row-O-Ruh" noises while manipulating the puppet. This new version of White Fang was an immediate hit, and added a new dimension to Soupy's interaction with the character, since Adler (who was promoted from stagehand to puppeteer) could alter his grunts and growls to "reply" appropriately to Soupy's dialogue.

X-Rated Soup

The atmosphere on Soupy's set was relaxed, to say the least. The crew did their best to throw the boss off-guard, especially in the days when the show was broadcast live. One classic example occurred in 1959, when the crew arranged a very special surprise "present" for Soupy's birthday. A woman's scream prompted Soupy to open a stage door to see what was wrong. The TV audience could only guess at what was going on from his reaction and the musical cue (David Rose's "The Stripper"). However, thanks to the uncut "blooper" reel that was eventually leaked, part two of this YouTube clip lets all of us in on the secret. (Warning: If black-and-white nude breasts are verboten at your place of employment, this clip is not safe for work.)

Fans in High Places

Soupy's show moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, and one of his biggest fans turned out to be Frank Sinatra, by way of his daughter Tina. Frank was a huge fan of slapstick comedy, and when Tina told him about this guy on TV who was as funny as the Three Stooges, he began tuning in daily. Frank appeared on Soupy's show more than once (Sammy Davis Jr. even joined him once) and gamely accepted a pie in the puss each time.

Here Comes the Science

The pie-in-the-face schtick that became Soupy's trademark originally featured real pies. Eventually budget restrictions dictated the switch to shaving cream-filled pie crusts. But the crusts had to be real. That was Soupy's secret—real crusts exploded upon impact, and fell away from the victim's face. The recipient's dignity crumbled away, piece by piece, as the crust did. A pie that fully stuck to the face simply wasn't funny. It became something of a status symbol to get pied by Soupy—even the most unlikely celebrities stopped by for a faceful of pastry.

Nanny State Rules

On January 1, 1965, Soupy was a bit put out at having to work on a holiday. During the closing moments of his show, he encouraged the kids who were watching to sneak into Mommy and Daddy's bedroom and take those little green pieces of paper from their purses and wallets with pictures of presidents (like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) on them and mail them to their ol' pal Soup. He concluded by giving out the TV station's address and promising to send the kids a postcard from Puerto Rico in exchange. Sales considered his remarks just another tossed-off ad-lib, meant to make his crew laugh. What he didn't count on was the outrage of the many parents who'd been watching. The station received so many angry phone calls that Soupy was put on a two week suspension. In reality, very few children had the wherewithal to copy down the station's address, get a postage stamp and actually mail a dollar bill to Soupy. His "punishment" was more or less a gesture on the part of management to appease the parents who'd been appalled at the possible anarchy Soupy Sales had inspired among their children.


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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]