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The Island of Misfit Christmas Specials

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Holiday TV specials creep into the viewing schedule earlier and earlier each year. My Dad swears that he saw a back-to-back presentation of Yankee Doodle Dandy and A Charlie Brown Christmas last July 4th, but he may have been exaggerating. By cracky, when I was a youngin', Christmas specials never aired before Thanksgiving, and that always made the holiday season seem more special, more"¦.Christmas-y. Some of the stalwarts from my childhood, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, are still aired today, so let's not dwell on those. But what about those shows that have since been banished to the Island of Misfit Christmas Specials?

1. The House Without a Christmas Tree

treeThe year is 1946 and the setting is the tiny town of Clear River, Nebraska. Addie Mills (Lisa Lucas) is a very bright 10-year-old being raised by her grandmother and father, since her mom died shortly after giving birth to her. Addie's father, James (Jason Robards), is not particularly warm, but he enjoys playing logic games and puzzles with his precocious daughter. Come Christmas time each year, he becomes even more withdrawn and curmudgeonly and refuses (without explanation) to allow a Christmas tree in his home. When Addie wins her classroom's Christmas tree in a "choose a number from"¦" contest, instead of being proud of his daughter's analytical skills, he is furious—not only because he seemingly hates Christmas, but also because of the perceived "charity" aspect of the situation. Even the Grinchiest viewer misted up when tiny Addie dragged the tree to a local orphanage and left it on the front steps with a note from "Santa." The House without a Christmas Tree was filmed like a play on videotape and the overall "look" added to the poignancy of the production.

Let's quickly lighten the mood with a word from our sponsor. We never gave our Dad a Norelco three-headed electric shaver (he was strictly a Schick safety razor man), but this jovial commercial was always a family favorite:

2. Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

One of many embarrassing reminders of what a large part television played in my early development is that day when my fourth grade teacher asked our class during a Christmas-related lesson who said "Bah, humbug!" My hand shot up and I proudly answered "Mr. Magoo!"

United Productions of America (UPA) had been producing Mr. Magoo shorts for several years and was looking to expand into feature-length productions. Christmas TV specials were rare at the time, so the studio pitched the idea of a myopic Magoo reenacting Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Timex came on board as a sponsor, and Broadway veterans Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were tapped to provide the score and lyrics. The result was a hit that was re-aired every holiday season for"¦a few years, until slicker, more elaborate animated specials entered the market, and it became un-PC to find humor in disabilities like Mr. Magoo's near-sightedness.

Time for another commercial break"¦this time featuring a three-year-old Corey Feldman in his very first role. By the way, a 50-cent McDonald's gift certificate may not seem like much now, but back in 1975 it could buy you a hamburger and a small pop (soda to some of you).

3. Amahl and the Night Visitors

No one knew it at the time, but the December 25, 1966, airing on NBC of Amahl and the Night Visitors was the last time Gian Carlo Menotti's made-for-TV opera would ever be broadcast on network television. And, thanks to my second grade music teacher, I was one of those in the viewing audience that night.

amahlJust prior to Christmas break, she instructed us to watch Amahl and the Night Visitors because she would give us a test on it once school resumed. I was banished to the basement to watch it on our old blurry Zenith TV set because my Dad wasn't going to sit through some (profane adjective) opera. All these years later I can still remember specific scenes, like the Three Wise Men knocking at the door of Amahl's house, and he and his mother singing about it for half an hour before finally opening the darned door. Obviously I was too young to appreciate the historical perspective of the show—it was specially commissioned in 1950 by NBC to appeal to their then-target audience. When Amahl first aired in 1951, TV sets were an expensive luxury item, and those who had the disposable income to purchase one were most likely the type to have advanced degrees and who would appreciate "prestige" programming.

Time for another quick break—contrary to urban legend, Coca-Cola didn't invent the present-day image of Santa Claus. They did, however, invent some very catchy tunes.

4. Star Wars Holiday Special

The original Star Wars film was actually an unexpected hit, so in retrospect, it's no surprise that some enterprising TV network would win a bidding war to host a Christmas TV special. Of course, after the show laid a massive ratings goose egg, everyone from George Lucas to Carrie Fisher would first deny the show's existence, then later make elaborate excuses for its suckage.

The Star Wars Holiday Special aired only once in its entirety, on November 17, 1978. Among the many unfortunate choices made by the producers, the storyline focused on Chewbacca and his Wookie family, who could only communicate via weird whiny noises that sounded like an arctic wolf being shot from a helicopter. Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur and Diahann Carroll were the special guest stars. The actual stars of the film made what could best be described as a cameo appearance, during which Carrie Fisher sang a heartfelt "Happy Life Day" to the tune of the Star Wars theme song.

Before we depart, let's transport to a happier time, when you could purchase a Michael Jackson talking ViewMaster thingie for just under $30.

Happy holidays to all, and all please chime in with your Christmas TV memories!


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.