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10 Stars Who Started on Sesame Street

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After 4,200 episodes, there's bound to be a few actors, writers, and staff members who worked on the Street before fame hit. Here are some examples, from Rudy Huxtable to Whoopi Goldberg.

1. Keshia Knight Pulliam (and other kid actors)

Most of the kids who appeared on Sesame Street were "real" children who had proved they could stay oh-so-adorable while working with puppets. But as time went on, more and more child actors were hired, and the more talented kids later found themselves on other popular television shows. Among those kids were Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy Huxtable, from The Cosby Show), Tatyana Ali (Ashley Banks, from Fresh Prince of Bel Air), and Tyler James Williams (Chris, from Everybody Hates Chris).

2. Raúl Juliá

Although he was already becoming well known in the world of Broadway, Raúl Juliá appeared as "Rafael", co-founder of the Fix-It Shop (along with Luis) in season 3. Juliá only appeared for one season, while Luis is still a regular on Sesame Street 37 years later.

3. Charlotte Rae


Raúl Juliá wasn't the only new cast member to Sesame Street in the third season. Charlotte Rae, better known as Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life (and before that, Mrs. Garrett from Diff'rent Strokes), portrayed Molly the mail lady. Unfortunately, Molly went the way of Rafael and disappeared by the end of the year.

4. Stockard Channing


Six years before her breakout role as Rizzo in Grease, Stockard Channing appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street as a victim of "The Mad Painter." The Mad Painter was played by Paul Benedict, who had memorable roles in films like Waiting for Guffman and as Harry Bentley on The Jeffersons. Stockard Channing later had another brush with Sesame Street when Elmo, Zoe, Rosita and Big Bird appeared on an episode of The West Wing.

5. Mo Willems


Before he stopped that pigeon from driving that bus, beloved children's author Mo Willems made his name as an animator and writer for Sesame Street. Among his animated sketches were the Suzie Kabloozie cartoons, but his most visible accomplishment was the opening sequence to Elmo's World, which he designed and directed. So, Willems is partly to blame when that theme song gets stuck in your head.

6. Hervé Villechaize


Whenever Oscar the Grouch needed to leave the stoop of 123 Sesame Street, rather than abandon his trash can, he would stick his legs out of the bottom of his can and walk around on his own. Of course Caroll Spinney, his regular puppeteer, couldn't fit inside the can, so a smaller actor was hired to perform Oscar's lower half. Hervé Villechaize portrayed those familiar legs, long before he had to warn Mr. Roarke that "de plane" is coming on Fantasy Island.

7. Pixar

We mentioned Luxo Jr's involvement on Sesame Street in our article about Sesame's fictional celebrity guests, but it bears repeating. Pixar began their reputation as the best CGI animators by creating short films starring their famous lamps Luxo and Luxo Jr. for Sesame Street. The luminous little guys taught lessons about opposites while training their animators to prepare them for Toy Story, which was kind of a big deal.

8 & 9. Richard Belzer and Brian Doyle-Murray

This unlikely duo appeared in an early Sesame Street sketch in which the two men must learn to cooperate in order to keep a cute little dog from ruining their picnic. Do they fail or succeed? Find out for yourself.

10. Whoopi Goldberg

The strangest pre-celebrity connection is that of Whoopi Goldberg, who didn't actually appear on the show until 1990. Years earlier, before she was famous for her stand-up comedy, Goldberg worked backstage as a babysitter, watching over the kids while they waited to be called on set. Post-celebrity, she has worked with Sesame Street in several episodes and made-for-TV specials, and she provides the voiceover for the introductory message at the beginning of every Sesame Workshop home video. Her goodwill has spread to other Muppet productions, including Muppets Tonight, several TV movies, an audio book narration, and a cameo on Muppet Babies. And to think, it all started with a babysitting gig.

A big thanks to Muppet Wiki and ToughPigs for help and images.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.