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8 Memorable Sesame Street Celebrity Cameos

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Over 400 celebrities have guest starred on Sesame Street, including actors, musicians, writers, politicians and athletes. The upcoming 40th season will feature appearances by Adam Sandler, Matthew Fox, Ricky Gervais, Judah Friedlander, both Gyllenhaals, Paul Rudd and Michelle Obama. Here are a few memorable guest spots from the first 39 years.

1. James Earl Jones Scares Your Children

In Sesame Street's second episode, James Earl Jones became the first celebrity guest (which was no surprise, since he was a student of Will Lee, Sesame's Mr. Hooper). Although having a big star like Jones is no shocker, what's strange is how he appeared. In a close-up of Jones' shiny, bald head, he counted to 10 and recited the alphabet in an intense, booming voice. The appeal, of course, was that a big star was participating in some basic preschool education, but the result was something truly terrifying to the toddlers in the audience (or at least to me, right now).

That didn't stop Sesame Street from bringing Jones back to host their 10th anniversary special, which featured less terror and more hair.

2. Ralph Nader: Consumer Advocate/Grammar Snob

Perhaps my favorite strange celebrity appearance is from a Sesame Street PBS pledge drive special from 1988 featuring Ralph Nader.

He joined Bob for a chorus of "The People in Your Neighborhood," singing, "A Consumer Advocate is a person in your neighborhood." When asked what a Consumer Advocate is, Nader explained by inspecting Bob's sweater, pointing out the shoddy workmanship, and destroying it in the process. While on the set, Nader initially refused to sing the song unless the lyrics were changed from "the people that you meet" to the more grammatically correct "the people whom you meet." Of course, they relented.

Ten years later, Nader attacked Sesame Street and PBS for including commercial sponsorship spots before and after each show.

3. Mr. Donahue Meets Mr. Snuffleupagus

In 1985, Phil Donahue appeared in one of the most famous Sesame Street episodes—the one where Mr. Snuffleupagus is revealed to the world. Donahue interviewed the people on Sesame Street to find out if they thought Snuffy—who had been on the show since the early 1970s, but perceived by the adults as an imaginary friend of Big Bird—was real. After the adults met Snuffy for the first time, Donahue had the pleasure of giving him a big ol' bear hug.

4. The Second Guy on the Moon

In 2005, Cookie Monster had it in his head that the moon is a giant cookie, which he plans on eating, thus altering the earth's tides forever. Luckily, Gordon was paid a visit by his close friend, "Second Guy on the Moon" Buzz Aldrin, who rained on Cookie Monster's parade by telling him the moon is just a big old rock. Though I didn't learn much about the moon, I did learn that it's very convenient to have famous friends.

5. The Micro Machines Guy

John Moschitta, Jr.—better known as either the fast-talking "FedEx Guy" or "Micro Machines Guy," depending on when you were born—appeared in several Sesame Street sketches. In this clip, he introduces his children, who each have extremely long names, one for every letter of the alphabet. It's unclear what lesson was being taught here.

6. Mayor Dinkins

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch made a cameo in The Muppets Take Manhattan, and current Mayor Mike Bloomberg appeared in A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa. But only one former Mayor appeared on Sesame Street. David Dinkins holds that honor, having appeared in 1992 to give Gordon the "Good Citizen Award." Congratulations, Gordon! It couldn't have happened to a nicer (or balder) guy.

7. Real Estate Tycoon Ronald Grump

grumpIt's rare for Sesame Street plots to involve an actual villain. Oscar fills that position most often, though he's more of a jerk than inherently evil. And we had the villainous Miss Finch and Huxley from Follow that Bird and Elmo in Grouchland, respectively. But one odd villain came to us by way of Joe Pesci, who portrayed the evil real estate tycoon Ronald Grump in the special, Sesame Street All-Star 25th Birthday: Stars and Street Forever! Pesci, donning the overblown Donald Trump toupee, decides to buy Sesame Street and replace it with high-rise condos. Naturally, his plans are foiled (by none other than Oscar the Grouch), and Sesame Street is safe from becoming a location on The Apprentice.

8. Neil Patrick Harris, Shoe Fairy

And no list of celebrity guests would be complete without Neil Patrick Harris' 2008 appearance as the Shoe Fairy.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]