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4 Turkey Day TV Specials (and Some Surprising Facts Behind Them)

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What does Thanksgiving mean to you? Is it a day of gathering together with beloved family members to share a bountiful repast, or is it the chore of getting up at six o'clock in the morning to shove croutons up a dead turkey while the rest of the family slumbers contentedly? Wherever your emotions fall in the overall Thanksgiving spectrum, we hope to give you some temporary relief by revisiting some of our (and hopefully your!) favorite TV turkey moments.

1. Cheers reveals what Vera Looks Like (Briefly!)

normswife.pngIn the "Thanksgiving Orphans" episode, most of the regulars who frequent Cheers have no special plans for Thanksgiving, so they accept Carla's invitation to a potluck dinner held at her home, with Norm in charge of bringing the turkey. Norm, however, unskilled in the nuances defrosting a bird before roasting it, brings an enormous frozen turkey to the party. Tempers begin to flare when it seems like the turkey will never be ready, and a food fight breaks out. Norm's oft-mentioned but never seen wife, Vera, arrives during the melee, but before viewers can get a good look at her, she receives a pie in the face. So, who played Vera? That role was given to George Wendt's real-life wife, Bernadette Birkett.

2. The Drunken Origin of the Bob Newhart Drinking Game

bobphone.pngTV Guide rated the "Over the River and Through the Woods" episode of The Bob Newhart Show at #9 of the 100 Greatest Episodes Ever. It's also Newhart's personal favorite. Emily is going home to Seattle for Thanksgiving and Bob decides to stay home because his "patients might need him" (when in reality he can't bear the thought of skipping stones across Puget Sound with his in-laws). His friend Jerry brings a large jug of vodka and cider, and starts taking slugs from it every time his alma mater (William and Mary) is scored against during the Big Game. Joined by Bob's neighbor and a patient, the quartet plays the drinking game throughout several more televised football games until they realize that they should probably eat something. Bob drunkenly tries to order Chinese food on the phone:
"I'd like some Moo Goo Gai Pan. What do you want, Jerry?"
"I, too, want the Moo Goo Gai Pan."
"Another Moo Goo"¦Goo Goo"¦"
"Bob! You said "˜Moo Goo Goo Goo!'"
"Maybe I'm ordering Chinese baby food!"
This episode inspired the "Hi, Bob" drinking game, where participants down a shot every time those words are spoken during an episode of the show.

3. WKRP's Strange (and True) Turkey Day Promotion

Arthur Carlson, the station manager on WKRP in Cincinnati, longs to play more of an integral role in daily operations. So, in the "Turkeys Away!" episode, he secretly plans a special Thanksgiving promotion "“ dropping live turkeys out of a helicopter over the Pinedale Shopping Mall. The station's earnest but clueless news reporter Les Nessman is on the scene reporting live, and at first states that skydivers are jumping out of the copter. But when no parachutes open"¦he suddenly realizes that he is witnessing live turkeys hitting the ground "like sacks of wet cement." Mr. Carlson hadn't intended any animal cruelty; "As God is my witness," he states after the event, "I thought turkeys could fly." Oddly enough, this episode was based on an actual radio station promotion that one of the show's writers had witnessed. The stunt was inspired by an annual "turkey drop" festival held in Yellville, Arkansas, which was finally halted in 1989 after animal rights activists got wind of it.

4. Will and Grace struggle to Keep the Story Straight

willgrace.pngWill and Grace fans learned the entire back story of all the main characters in the "Lows in the Mid-Eighties" episode (which originally aired as a one-hour special in November 2000.) Flash back to 1985, when Columbia student Grace brings boyfriend Will home with her for Thanksgiving. After dinner, Grace is all hot and bothered when they retire to her bedroom, but Will feels conflicted and rushes to the bathroom to call Jack, whom he'd met briefly earlier that day. Jack has already correctly noted that Will is gay, which Will vehemently denied at the time. "If you're all hot for your girlfriend, then why are you on the phone with me?" Jack asks him. In addition to clarifying quite a bit, the show does bring up one inconsistency. This episode briefly shows Diane, the only woman with whom Will was intimate, but she's a redhead played by a writer's assistant. In a later episode, Diane is portrayed by blonde Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino.

Since you're probably reading this at work while marking time until the long weekend begins, why not chime in with your favorite Thanksgiving TV episodes?

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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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