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5 Other Late Night Feuds

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If snarky commentary could deep-fry, Jay Leno would be onion rings. Ever since NBC announced that Jay Leno's current 10pm show would be fine-tuned and moved to the 11:35 time slot, the knives have been out for the former Tonight Show host. Is Leno a hapless pawn caught in the middle of cutthroat NBC politics? Or is he a master manipulator, pulling strings and calling in favors in an attempt to save face? The true story remains to be seen, but this isn't the first time that personalities clashed and venom was spewed in the world of late night television.

1. Jack Paar vs. NBC

jack-paarJack Paar took over hosting duties of The Tonight Show in 1957. He transformed the show from its typical variety format to something edgier and more unpredictable: He not only had the most popular performers of the day on his couch, he also interviewed non-entertainers like Billy Graham and Richard Nixon. He went to Cuba to talk to Fidel Castro, and broadcast live from Germany when the Berlin Wall was being built. As controversial as some of those shows were at the time, they were still aired unedited. The proverbial straw that caused the camel to cross that fine line with NBC censors was a joke Paar related during his monologue on February 10, 1960.


It was a four-minute story that involved the misunderstanding when a British tourist in Switzerland inquired about the "W.C." (meaning the water closet, or toilet) and receiving directions to Wayside Chapel in response. Communist regimes and fascist dictators were more acceptable than bathroom humor in those days, and NBC excised Paar's monologue without consulting him. When he found out about it, he made a tearful announcement on the next evening's broadcast denouncing censorship: "I love NBC, and they've been wonderful to me. But they let me down." And then he abruptly walked off the set. Public outcry encouraged Paar to return to his hosting duties three weeks later; as he strolled casually onstage he looked into the camera and stated: "As I was saying before I was interrupted"¦"

2. Johnny Carson vs Jay Leno

In 1987, Johnny was still the host and head honcho of The Tonight Show, but Jay Leno was the exclusive "guest host" for those nights when Johnny was unable to work. When Carson eventually negotiated a shorter work week into his contract, it meant that Leno became the de facto host each Monday night. All was copacetic until late 1991, when Leno's management released stories to the press stating that Carson planned to retire the following year, and Leno would assume host duties of The Tonight Show. Johnny had been considering retirement, but those talks were still speculative and behind-the-scenes, and he felt that Jay Leno had forced his hand. Carson not-so-subtly let his true feelings be known by snubbing Leno's Tonight Show and appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman after his retirement.

3. Johnny Carson vs. Joan Rivers

Acerbic comedienne Joan Rivers got her first big break on The Tonight Show, and she and Johnny became friendly enough over the years that he anointed her "permanent guest host" in 1983. Rivers filled in for Johnny for the next three years to great acclaim. In 1986, executives from the fledgling Fox network offered Rivers her own late-night talk show. Carson, who'd been something of a mentor to Rivers over the years, felt betrayed because she did not advise him in advance of her decision—he first learned of her upcoming show via a televised press conference. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was cancelled less than a year after it debuted, and Johnny Carson never spoke to Rivers again.

4. Arsenio Hall vs. Jay Leno

leno-hallThe Arsenio Hall Show debuted in 1989 and was an immediate ratings sensation. He appealed to a younger, hipper audience than other talk shows did at the time. (You'd never see Tupac Shakur sharing the sofa with Don Rickles on Arsenio.) When it was announced that Jay Leno was taking over the reins of The Tonight Show, Hall was undaunted; he bragged in a magazine interview that he'd kick Leno's (backside). Unfortunately, Arsenio suffered from the "too hot, too soon" syndrome, and Arsenio's schtick eventually became dated. People stopped "woofing" and circling their fists, and hip-hop took a temporary back seat to the grunge movement. Viewers drifted to Letterman and Leno, who were also hosting younger and more contemporary artists as guests. Arsenio's show was cancelled in 1994, but he eventually mended his fences with Leno and made several appearances on The Tonight Show.

5. David Letterman vs. Jay Leno

Had Johnny Carson any say in the matter, his Tonight Show successor would have been David Letterman. But NBC decided that Jay Leno was the heir apparent, and a disgusted Dave jumped to CBS in revenge. Late Night with David Letterman had been airing at 12:30am on NBC, right after The Tonight Show, for 10 years, so when CBS offered him an 11:30 time slot in direct competition with Jay Leno, he couldn't refuse. The Tonight Show garnered higher ratings, but The Late Show with David Letterman had a younger, more appealing demographic for advertisers. Even though Leno has very publicly attempted to end the feud (revealing, for example, to an interviewer that he'd sent a card to Letterman after his bypass surgery), the two still have their own version of the Berlin Wall between them.

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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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May 23, 2017
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