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The Early Game Show Appearances of 10 Future Stars

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1. Mel Harris

In 1979 future thirtysomething star Mary Ellen Harris (her real name, as we found out) competed on the $20,000 Pyramid. She gave her occupation as a “professional dog trainer,” a resume bullet point that seems to be missing from all her official biographies. Mel was a fierce competitor, but she missed the big money payoff by that much (picture my thumb and index finger almost meeting).

2. Dr. Joyce Brothers

Pop psychologist Joyce Brothers would eventually become a regular on the talk show circuit, but in 1955 she was a newly minted PhD and a stay-at-home-mom trying to make ends meet on the $50 per month her husband received for his medical residency. Intelligent and attractive, she decided that a game show might be a quick fix to her family’s financial dilemma.

The folks at The $64,000 Question found her camera-friendly and affable enough, but she needed to choose an appropriately “inappropriate” category (the show’s “hook” was strange juxtapositions, as in the Marine drill sergeant who was an expert on opera) in which to compete in order to secure a slot on the show. She chose boxing (her husband was a fan) and then proceeded to cram like a graduate student on steroids. Given six weeks to prepare, she went to the publisher of Ring magazine and picked up every issue they’d ever printed. Then her husband approached the producer of the Great Fights of the Century films and was allowed to borrow the reels. Her dogged determination paid off, for not only did she win the top prize, her appearance on the show led to interest from other TV hosts and soon her face was a fixture on the small screen.

3. John Ritter

He was just a college student majoring in drama when he appeared as Bachelor Number Three on The Dating Game back in 1967, but watch this clip and see if “Jack Tripper” wasn’t already in the making.

4. Naomi Judd

In 1972 Diana Ciminella was a recently divorced single mom working at a health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip trying to support her two daughters, Christina and Ashley. Homesick for her family back in Ashland, Kentucky, she decided to exploit her perky personality and proximity to the major TV studios and auditioned for several game shows in order to earn airfare back home. She became a champion contestant on Hollywood Squares, but was eliminated on her third day of Password competition thanks to celebrity teammate Peter Lawford’s indulgence of pre-show cocktails. Diana did earn enough scratch to get back home, where several years later she and daughter Christina would, as Naomi and Wynonna Judd, have a bit of success in the country music field.

5. Kirstie Alley

When Kirstie Alley appeared on both Match Game and Password Plus in 1979, she gave her occupation as “interior designer.” That was a bit of a stretch, seeing as the last design firm she’d worked for was back in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and even then she’d had no credentials or experience and often wondered why the owner of Dean’s Designs not only hired her but had kept her on board after many serious screw-ups.

6. Heather Graham

Sixteen-year-old Heather described herself as an “aspiring actress” when she appeared as a contestant during a 1986 special Teen Week of Scrabble. The blonde, blue-eyed ingénue had already appeared in a few TV commercials, but her onscreen bantering with Chuck Woolery caught the attention of casting directors and she landed a part in a two-episode story arc on Growing Pains the following year.

7. Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman)

Even though he’s appearing as part of a duo called “Betty and Eddie,” listen carefully and you can hear Chuck Barris say “Thanks, Paul” as the pair leaves the stage of The Gong Show. (“Betty” was Charlotte McGinnis, Reubens’ Groundlings comedy partner at the time. Sadly, she passed away in 2006.)

8. Vanna White

Future letter-turner White’s first public game show exposure came in June 1980 when her name was called to join Contestant’s Row on The Price Is Right. Vanna never made it onstage, but her T-shirt caught the attention of TPIR staffers nonetheless.

9. Kellie Martin

Despite the title, Card Sharks wasn’t really about poker or blackjack; the only “gambling” involved was guessing whether the next card revealed would be higher or lower than the previous one. During a special Youth Week competition future Life Goes On star (and Lifetime Original Movie staple) Kellie Martin won $2,400 in the Money Cards bonus game. Only 11 years old at the time, her dream was to be a director when she grew up.

10. Phyllis Diller

You Bet Your Life was a game show in name only; it was really just an excuse for host Groucho Marx to exchange quips with his guests for 30 minutes. As a result, the contestant coordinators tried to get a mix of average Americans who people-next-door yet not quite run-off-the mill. Thus a housewife from Lima, Ohio, with aspirations for a career in comedy landed her first national TV spot.

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]