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6 Shows Saved by First-Run Syndication

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One little-known adage in the world of TV sitcoms is "when the networks hand you lemons, there's always first-run syndication." Occasionally, when a series fails to land a place on the network schedule, there is someone on the production staff who believes in the project enough (or who has a well-placed relative at a UHF station) that it finds a home in first-run syndication. Here are six examples.

1. She's the Sheriff

She's the Sheriff (1987-89) was a major slice of humble pie for Suzanne Somers. After spending several years on magazine covers and posters as a result of her success on Three's Company, she found herself almost blacklisted after a salary dispute. Not only was she shown the door, the Three's Company legal team also invoked a "cease and desist" order that essentially prevented Somers from accepting any roles that even remotely resembled Chrissy Snow. The major networks were reluctant to get involved in a potentially sticky situation, and the series offers that had been flooding her manager's office were quietly rescinded. Desperate for work, Somers signed on for She's the Sheriff, in which her character inherits Lakes County, Nevada's most important law enforcement position after the death of her husband.

2. Small Wonder

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Small Wonder always seems to rate tops on "bottom" lists, but the show had a four-year run (1985-89), so someone must have been watching it. Tiffany Brissette was suitably mechanical in her portrayal of Vicki, the Voice Input Child Identicant built by her robotics engineer father. Much of the humor was based on the fact that Vicki was incapable of emotion and interpreted most commands literally (a schtick Get Smart's Hymie the Robot had already done to death). Tiffany Brissette eventually left the business and took up distance running. She has successfully placed in many marathons over the years, and is now in nursing school.

3. Out of This World

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Out of This World aired from 1987-1991 and was one of many "aliens on Earth" sitcoms of that era. In this case, 13-year-old Evie Garland was the offspring of an Earthling mother (Saturday Night Fever's Donna Pescow) and an unseen father from the planet Antareus. Evie communicated with dad via an illuminated cube similar to those decorative lights available at Spencer Gifts. Dad's voice was provided by Burt Reynolds, who was in the midst of a "between Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 and Evening Shade" career lull.

4. Madame's Place

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Madame's Place only ran for one season, but it seemed much longer because, unlike most sitcoms, it was filmed to air five episodes per week. The star of the show was ventriloquist Wayland Flowers' sarcastic diva puppet, Madame. The series used an arsenal of attention-getting devices: Madame's bawdy humor, celebrity guest stars on the talk show-within-a-show, and a scantily clad Landers sister, but it was usually banished to a late-night time slot in most markets and was never able to develop a large audience base.

5. Mama's Family

Mama's Family started out on NBC but was canceled in 1984 after one season. Lorimar Telepictures saw some potential in the series, however, and the show returned in syndicated form from 1986 through 1990. Rue McClanahan and Betty White were regulars during the NBC season but were unavailable for the syndicated version thanks to some other show they got involved with called The Golden Girls. Mama's Family was actually inspired by this classic skit on The Carol Burnett Show; it was supposed to be a one-off, but was so well-received that it turned into a recurring bit:

6. Charles in Charge

charles-in-chargeWho didn't want Charles in Charge of them? The answer is CBS apparently, since the network canned the series after one season in 1985. But Scott Baio still had enough of the teen idol vibe left over from his Happy Days stint that he was able to carry this show for an additional four years in syndication. The Pembroke Family, which had employed Charles as a babysitter during the show's first season, moved to Seattle and sublet their home to the Powells. The Powell patriarch was in the military and consequently spent most of his time away from home, which gave Charles an excuse to continue to live downstairs rent-free. Apart from giving Meg Ryan one of her earliest TV appearances, Charles in Charge also afforded Baio the opportunity to get his feet wet as a director (which he did under the name "Scott Vincent Baio" in order to assert his Seriousness Credentials.)
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Let's see who is brave enough to admit that they watched She's the Sheriff just to see Suzanne in uniform, or that they know all the words to the Charles in Charge theme song.

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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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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]

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