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The Quick 10: 10 Really Bizarre Soap Opera Plots

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I don't watch soap operas these days, but every now and then I hear about a particularly strange event in Salem or Port Charles. Amnesia, false marriages, faked deaths, mistaken identity - those things are so old hat. I'm talking really out-there plots, like the 10 below.

luke1. Luke and Laura save the world from being frozen. So, this evil Greek billionaire named Mikkos is looking for a diamond called The Ice Princess, and as luck would have it, so is Luke. It turns out that the only reason Mikkos wants the rock is to (insert Dr. Evil pinkie here) take over the world, and to show he means business, he uses a machine to make a blizzard randomly appear in Port Charles. If his demands aren't met, Mikkos plans on plunging the entire world into an ice age. Luckily, Luke and Laura manage to turn off the machine and kill Mikkos. However, Mikkos' widow - Elizabeth Taylor, of course - shows up at Luke and Laura's wedding and places a curse on them for killing her husband. Those crazy kids!

2. Marlena is possessed by the Devil. I remember this one, because I was in junior high and had all summer to immerse myself in the Days of our Lives town of Salem. Sad, I know. Marlena has been through all kinds of turmoil, but this is my favorite. Her constant and unwanted suitor, Stefano DiMera, drugged Marlena night after night so he could do as he pleased with her. This apparently left her open to demon possession, and before long, Marlena was levitating and threatening to kill her friends and family. Luckily, John Black "remembered" that he had been ordained as a priest, performed an exorcism, and sent the Devil back to the netherworld. Whew.

3. It was all a dream... a dog's dream. See, it's not just American soaps that are ridiculous. In the Australian soap Neighbours (very popular in the U.K.), camera time was actually dedicated to a segment where Bouncer, a lovable labrador retriever, fell asleep and had a dream that he married the dog next door. So... yeah.

4. Time travel to 1888. In 1988, Clint from One Life to Live had an accident in the desert. When he woke up, he found himself in the old West town of Buchanan City. Viki (Erika Slezak) had to follow his time-traveling footsteps to get him to make the leap home again. And thank God she did - he was just about to marry one of his ancestors. Ew.

timmy5. Timmy, the doll that came to life. It's kind of hard to know where to start with Passions - the whole thing was a bit ridiculous - but Timmy the doll is a good start. Timmy, of course, is the companion of Tabitha the witch. He helped her sink the Titanic, among many other great disasters. One year, he wished upon a star to be a real boy, just like Pinocchio, but with somewhat different results. When his wish came true, Tabitha claimed the living doll was her nephew and the two of them continued to wreak havoc on the town of Harmony until one of their evil plots backfired, killing Timmy. Don't worry - he was replaced by another doll named Cracked Connie and her boyfriend, Demented Cecil. Totally everyday stuff, you know?

6. Precious, the obsessive orangutan nurse. Let's stay in the offbeat town of Harmony for a minute. This is a place where it's perfectly acceptable to hire an orangutan when you can't afford a human caregiver for your ailing mother. I guess you gotta do what you gotta do. Not only did Precious take care of the elderly, she also developed a crush on a human character named Luis. Alas, Luis didn't return Precious' love (I should hope not - bestiality is a line even Passions should probably avoid), and when Precious left town in 2005, she took a pictures of Luis with her and released it out the window of the train she was riding to prove that the Luis chapter of her life had closed. How dramatic! The Passions crew thought the performance was Emmy-worthy and tried to nominate the primate for an award; however, the Academy responded that the award was intended for humans only.

7. Killer clones. Reva on Guiding Light was cloned after her husband thought she died in a plane crash. It turned out that she hadn't died, though, and when Reva tried to return to her life, her clone tried to kill her. Sigh. Don't you hate when that happens?

marlena8. A mystery island full of missing people presumed to be dead. We travel back to Salem for this crazy plot, which, of course, involves Marlena again. After Marlena is revealed to be the fearer Salem Stalker - a serial killer who had taken several victims - she "dies," but actually finds herself on an island that looks exactly like Salem, populated with all of the supposed Salem Stalker victims. Turns out that Tony DiMera faked everyone's deaths because he wanted to split up all of the great couples of Salem. That's a pretty elaborate scheme just to break some people up!

9. Gorilla Kidnapping. Apparently the appearance of apes and gorillas on soap operas is more common than you might think. On the now-defunct Ryan's Hope, Delia Reid Coleridge was once kidnapped by a horny gorilla. Man, if I had a nickel for every time that happened to me...

10. Death by Bear. Animal guest appearances aren't just limited to primates. On The Bold and the Beautiful, Pamela was just about to shoot her rival, Donna, in a remote cabin the the woods. Donna is all set to escape when she notices a bear lurking outside and decides her chances are better with Pamela. Pamela knocks Donna out, and when Donna comes to, she's covered in honey and tied to a chair: Pamela has decided to entice the bear into eating her. Unfortunately, the plan didn't work and the carnivorous Winnie-the-Pooh didn't get his snack.

I'm definitely aware that these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the insanity on soap operas. What's the weirdest plotline you can remember? I'm also partial to the time Stefano held Marlena captive in a cage in the sewers of Paris, but I figured two Marlena moments were enough. Leave a comment and let us know your favorites!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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