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6 Christmas Episodes Worth Mentioning

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Holiday episodes tend to be a bit generic. How many times can you rework A Christmas Carol or The Gift of the Magi into a sitcom plot? Here are a smattering of episodes worth mentioning either because they're rare, different or doggone it, because I just like "˜em.

1. Bewitched

Bewitched had many traditional Christmas episodes during its eight season run, but 1970's "Sisters at Heart" was controversial enough to require a special introduction by Elizabeth Montgomery at the behest of the show's sponsor, Oscar Mayer:

The plot that was making the network so jumpy was young Tabitha's desire to be sisters with her African-American friend, Lisa. In order to make them look alike, Tabby zaps black polka dots onto her flesh, and white ones on Lisa's. No doubt the episode would still be controversial today, thanks to Tabitha's brief appearance in blackface. The original story was submitted by a 10th grade English class at L.A.'s Thomas Jefferson High School.

2. Gilligan's Island

"Birds Gotta Fly, Fish Gotta Talk," the Christmas episode of Gilligan's Island, was primarily a clip show. The castaways are understandably miserable spending the holiday away from home, on a desert island where even a year-old fruitcake would be more appetizing than yet another coconut cream pie. They reminisce about their first days on the island via carefully selected scenes from the pilot—carefully selected because the characters that eventually became the Professor, Mary Ann and Ginger were played by different actors in that episode.

The gang's gripe session is interrupted by a visit from Santa Claus, who looks and sounds suspiciously like the Skipper. Santa reminds them that they've got a reason or two to be merry this Christmas—at least they're all alive and thriving. And, most importantly, they genuinely like one another and live together like a family. At the same moment Jolly St. Nick makes his exit stage right, the Skipper arrives stage left. Who was that bearded man?!

3. Green Acres

This episode provides a new twist on the "longing for an old-fashioned Christmas" trope. Oliver Wendell Douglas wants to celebrate the holiday as the American Farmer of yore—to go out with axe in hand and chop down his own tree, and to decorate it with popcorn from his own corn crib. Of course, nothing is ever that simple in Hooterville. First he finds out that there is a conservation law in effect that prohibits him from cutting down trees, even on his own property. Then he is unable to work up any outrage among his neighbors, who prefer the "modern" method of buying an artificial tree from Drucker's Store, complete with spruce spray squeezers, imitation sap oozers, strings of wax popcorn and fiberglas candy canes.

4. The Simpsons

Even though it was actually the eighth episode produced, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" was the first full-length episode of the series to air. It was broadcast on December 17, 1989, and it certainly set the tone for the rest of the series. It's Christmas time, and Bart decides that a "Mother" tattoo would delight and surprise his mom. Marge catches him in the tattoo parlor at the "Moth" stage and has to blow the family's entire Christmas present budget on a laser removal procedure. Homer's expected Christmas bonus doesn't come through, so he takes a job as a department store Santa to earn extra money. When Bart climbs in his lap, he utters "I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?" for the first time. In a last-ditch attempt at raising cash, Homer goes to the dog track and bets on a long shot named Santa's Little Helper. The sluggish greyhound lost the race, but won a new home with the Simpson family.

5. The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Nothing starts those visions of sugarplums dancing like Lou Grant barking "Three French hens!" And how many chances do we get to see Mary Tyler Moore sporting a World War I German spear-head helmet? Sue Ann Nivens, The Happy Homemaker, is taping her Christmas show ("Holiday Yummies from Worldwide Tummies") in early November. A sudden snowstorm has stranded the WJM newsroom staff, so Sue Ann enlists them to flesh out her dinner table. The only problem is that Murray, Ted, Lou and even gentle angelic Mary have been sniping at each other all day in a series of petty arguments and no one is in a festive mood.

6. All in the Family

"The Draft Dodger" first aired in 1976, four years before President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to those men who'd fled to Canada to avoid conscription into the military during the Vietnam War. David Brewster, a draft-dodging pal of the Meathead, has been living in Canada but decides to risk a visit to the U.S. in order to spend the holidays with his old friend (since his own father refuses to see him). Meanwhile, Archie has invited his old friend Pinky Peterson (whose only son died in Vietnam) for Christmas dinner. Mike and Gloria struggle to keep David's fugitive status a secret from Archie, but once it's revealed, it results in a heated debate. Archie, a World War II veteran who served his country when called, argues that no one wants to go to war and get killed, but a true American obeys his government. Pinky, on the other hand, believes that if his son was still alive he'd welcome David at the dinner table. A poignant and thought-provoking episode that in many ways is still relevant today.

Loyal readers know the drill: now is the time to tell me which episodes I omitted, why my taste stinks, or what they love about the shows mentioned herein. Oy to the World and a Happy Festivus to all!

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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