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5 Things You Didn't Know About Pat Sajak

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He'll sell you a vowel or sympathize when you go bankrupt, but how well do you know Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak? Here are a few things you might not have known about the veteran game show man.

1. He Got to Say "Good Morning, Vietnam"

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Sajak joined the U.S. Army in 1968 with the hope that he could avoid being sent to Vietnam. Of course, since it was 1968, that plan didn't work out so well; Sajak ended up working as a finance clerk in Long Binh, Vietnam. Desperate to switch jobs, he kept applying for radio duty, but nothing happened.

Eventually, Sajak hit on an idea. He wrote a letter to one of his old radio employers who had been elected to Congress. A few calls to the right people later, and Sajak became an Army disc jockey, a job he held for 18 months. Sajak didn't love a lot of the military's radio rules, so he circumvented them. He later told the New York Times, "If you said your name, you were supposed to say your rank - specialist fifth class, which kind of ruins your patter. So on the radio I would just not say my name at all. I went for a year on radio without ever identifying myself.''

2. His Career Had a Rough Start

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Sajak's first steady radio gig was in Chicago on a tiny 250-watt Spanish language station.

He worked a midnight-to-6-a.m. shift reading the news every hour as it came in off the wire. Although the station was Spanish, Sajak read the news in English, which probably limited his audience. On top of that, he didn't speak Spanish, and the disc jockey he worked with didn't speak English, which made the transition to the news a bit tricky. Sajak later told USA Today, "I'd hear him say my name, and I figured that was my cue. I made whatever was minimum wage at the time. I think $1.80 an hour."

3. He "Looks Like Everyone's Uncle"

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Sajak may be synonymous with Wheel of Fortune now, but he hasn't always been the show's host. Chuck Woolery of Love Connection fame was the original host for the first six years of the show's run, but in 1981 he parted ways with the show.

Wheel of Fortune was a hit, but now it needed a new host. Game show mogul Merv Griffin was watching the news in Los Angeles when he saw a promising young weatherman named Pat Sajak on KNBC-TV. Griffin hand-picked Sajak to take over Wheel, later explaining that he liked Sajak because he "looked live everyone's uncle."

4. Late Night Didn't Go So Well

In early 1989, Sajak was looking for a new challenge, so he decided to try a jump to late night. CBS started airing Sajak's nightly 90-minute talk show with an interesting philosophy: instead of trying to revolutionize late-night programming, Sajak and his producers thought the medium was already great and tried to build a broad appeal by maintaining the status quo. Check out this odd lineup of guests from the first episode of The Pat Sajak Show: Chevy Chase, Joan Van Ark, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, and music from the Judds.

The show may have been broad, but its appeal wasn't. Sajak didn't thrive in the late-night game, and the show got the ax after just over a year despite Sajak being signed to a two-year guaranteed contract.

Towards the end of the show's run, CBS started using the show as an audition platform for replacement hosts, including a radio up-and-comer named Rush Limbaugh. This experiment didn't go so well; Limbaugh immediately brought up abortion and locked horns with a female audience member. Have a look for yourself:

5. He Loves Baseball

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Maybe it was only natural that Sajak would have Ueberroth on his first late-night show; the man is a baseball nut. (You may have spotted him sitting behind home plate during an Angels-Yankees ALCS game in Anaheim.) In fact, he loves baseball so much that in 2004 he pounced on the opportunity to become an investor in the upstart Golden Baseball League. The independent league, which now has 10 teams spread across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, has actually had some luck at getting players Major League Baseball jobs, including Seattle Mariners reliever Chris Jakubauskas.

Although many fledgling leagues quickly flop, the GBL is still going strong after five years. Sajak was even rewarded with his own bobblehead, which you can pick up for a measly five bucks.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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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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May 23, 2017
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