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11 Shocking TV Deaths

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1. ER — Paging Dr. Gant

Usually the death of a tertiary character doesn’t garner much sympathy. But Omar Epps (who went on to play Dr. Foreman on House) managed to hit us all in the gut with his dramatic exit on ER, even though he’d only been around for 10 episodes. During that time, however, it was made clear that as a surgical intern he was constantly bullied and belittled by Dr. Benton (Eriq LaSalle), whose philosophy was that black doctors had to set the bar higher in order to be taken seriously.

In the “Night Shift” episode, Gant was clearly troubled and left the hospital in the middle of his shift. Later in the night, EMS brought in a horribly battered patient who’d been hit by an EL train. Witnesses were divided as to whether he’d jumped or stumbled. As the staff started lifesaving procedures, Benton barked out the order to page Dr. Gant. A nurse dialed the telephone, and suddenly the beeper clipped on the belt of their patient started chirping…

2. The Bob Newhart Show — Death by Zucchini

Dr. Bob Hartley had several regular patients in his all-encompassing “group” – Mr. Peterson the henpecked milquetoast, Mrs. Bakerman the elderly supermarket cashier who always seemed to be knitting, Michelle the slightly overweight Daddy’s girl, and Mr. Carlin the name-the-neurosis-and-he-has-it man. Even though Mr. Carlin was known to occasionally lash out with a biting comment at other group members, he was not nearly as nasty as Mr. Gianelli, who had definite anger management issues. In the episode entitled “Death of a Fruitman,” Dr. Hartley’s group has arranged for a surprise party for their favorite shrink to celebrate four years together. As the patients begin to recite a special poem in tribute to Bob, Carol the receptionist learns that Mr. Gianelli, a produce wholesaler, was crushed to death earlier that day when a truckload of zucchini fell on him.

Mr. Peterson: You helped us all in every way.
Mr. Carlin: You got inside our head.
Michelle: And that is why we’d like to say…
Carol (bursting into the office): Mr. Gianelli’s dead!
Mrs. Bakerman: Well, that rhymes.

Noam Pitlik, who played Mr. Gianelli, had decided to leave the show in order to concentrate on producing and directing another sitcom, Barney Miller.

3. Seinfeld — The Invitations

Susan Biddle Ross’ on-again, off-again romance with George Costanza finally resulted in the couple getting engaged at the end of season seven. George got cold feet almost immediately after popping the question, and he tried his best to be extra-obnoxious in an effort to get Susan to call the whole thing off.

Susan probably should’ve realized her fiance’s reluctance when he chose the cheapest wedding invitations available. No wonder they’d been discontinued – the glue on the envelopes was toxic, and Susan fell ill and died after licking one too many. “The Invitations” originally aired in 1996 and was temporarily pulled from the syndication package after the 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S.

4. M*A*S*H — Abyssinia, Henry

The most obvious candidate in this category is M*A*S*H’s Lt. Col. Henry Blake. It was known that McLean Stevenson was leaving the series for (supposedly) greener pastures. But not everyone on the show knew the producers killed his character until right before the scene where Gary Burghoff (Radar) walked into the OR and announced that Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan.

5. Cheers — The Zamboni Accident

When Carla Tortelli married Eddie LeBec, he earned a living by playing goalie for the Boston Bruins. But then his game started going downhill, so he retired and joined a touring show called “The Wonderful World of Ice.” Eddie played a penguin in the show and died a noble death when he was run over by a Zamboni while pushing a fellow cast member out of the machine’s path. It was later revealed that Eddie probably wouldn’t have been killed off had actor Jay Thomas not, during a radio interview, responded to a caller’s question about life on the Cheers set by saying: “It’s brutal. I have to kiss Rhea Perlman.”

6. L.A. Law — Shafted

Diana Muldaur joined the cast of L.A. Law in 1989 as the ruthless and ambitious attorney Rosalind Shays. Viewers loved to hate Roz; after all, she bedded the fatherly founding partner Leland McKenzie, took over as senior partner after his retirement, and eventually sued the firm for sexual discrimination. Shays exited the show with a splat, not a bang – while casually chatting with Leland in front of the elevator, the bell “dinged” and the doors opened. Roz wasn’t looking as she stepped inside, so she didn’t realize that the elevator car hadn’t arrived, and she plunged to her death down the empty shaft. Of course, modern elevators are designed to make this type of malfunction impossible, but why split hairs? It still made for a memorable exit.

7. Mary Tyler Moore Show — Chuckles Bites the Dust

The reigning heavyweight champion in the Weird Deaths category is still “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” Chuckles the Clown was an oft-mentioned member of the WJM family, though he was only seen onscreen twice in the context of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In this classic episode, anchorman Ted Baxter was asked to be the grand marshal of a circus parade but was forced to turn the offer down by Lou Grant – appearing in a parade was conduct unbecoming when it came to the news business. He was replaced by Chuckles the Clown, who dressed as Peter Peanut for the occasion. Sadly, a rogue elephant attacked him and tried to shell him.

The circumstances of Chuckles’ death led to a slew of jokes in the WJM newsroom, much to Mary’s disgust. She was appalled that anyone could laugh when someone had died. But the absurdity of the situation finally struck her during Chuckles’ funeral:

8. Roseanne — What Really Happened to Dan

Many of the staunchest Roseanne fans hated the series’ over-the-top final season – the one where the Conners won the lottery and Jackie was courted by a prince while “Roseambo” battled terrorists.

There was a moment in the series finale, however, that did manage to evoke some genuine emotion. As the camera honed in on each cast member, Roseanne’s voiceover told their “true” story. When the camera focused on Dan, it panned away for a moment and then turned back—his chair was empty. Roseanne then revealed that Dan had actually died after the heart attack he’d suffered at Darlene’s wedding. Most of Roseanne’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings during this segment strained the imagination, but the vacant seat and the echoing sound of Dan’s voice calling “Rosey?” was a sudden, harsh slap of reality.

9. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman — Killer Soup

Fernwood, Ohio, the setting for Norman Lear’s soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, was a veritable death trap. Not only was there a serial killer terrorizing the locals, several Fernwood residents met their demise in bizarre ways. Jimmy Joe Jeeter, an eight-year-old evangelist, was electrocuted when a TV set fell into his bathtub. Garth Gimble, a notorious wife-beater portrayed by Martin Mull, accidentally impaled himself on the pointy end of an aluminum Christmas tree in his closet.

The odd circumstances of Coach Leroy Fedders’ death were conjured up not by the show’s writers but by Norman Lear himself. Leroy, miserably sick with the flu and unable to sleep, is sitting at the kitchen table alternately sipping bourbon and popping Seconals. Ever-helpful Mary Hartman drops by with a huge bowl of her homemade chicken soup. While Mary and Leroy’s wife go off to chat, the coach grows drowsy, falls face-first into the broth and slowly drowns.

10. Will and Grace — Blown Away

Diminutive (4’11”) actor Leslie Jordan received an Emmy Award for his portrayal of perpetual-thorn-in-Karen’s-side Beverley Leslie on Will and Grace. He was wealthy and traveled in the same social circles as Karen and delighted in publicly taking her down a peg or two.

Even though Beverley was ostensibly married, the other characters viewed him as a closeted gay man. And their assumption may well have been true, since in the final episode it was revealed that Karen had encouraged a reluctant Jack to cozy up to Beverley. When the tiny Beverley was blown off of a balcony by a strong gust of wind and fell to his death, Jack was the beneficiary of his estate, which allowed him and Karen to continue their bacchanalian friendship.

Interestingly enough, the writers had originally intended for the Beverley Leslie character to be a female portrayed by Joan Collins. But Ms. Collins pulled out of the project after reading a script that involved a catfight between Beverley and Karen, during which Bev’s wig would be pulled off.

11. The Simpsons — No Footlongs

280px-Maude_Flanders.JPGWho would’ve pre-ditilly-dicted that the chaste, saintly Maude Flanders would’ve met a gruesome death right on the air? In front of kids and everyone? Sadly, Maude had the misfortune of returning from the refreshment stand at the Springfield Speedway with her hands full of hot dogs just at the moment when Homer Simpson had painted a target on his tummy for the cheerleaders with a T-shirt cannon. Poor Maude plunged to her death after a volley of high-velocity tees knocked her off the grandstand. "No footlongs" was the last thing Ned ever said to his beloved wife.

The management of Lowe’s Speedway in North Carolina felt that this episode cut too close to the bone, as an incident of flying tires in 1999 actually caused the deaths of three spectators, so the local Fox affiliate refused to show any commercials promoting that particular episode.
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Nearly every show has killed off a character, so this list could go on forever. Alex's friend Greg on Family Ties, Dr. Kutner's suicide on House, Scott Scanlon's careless gunplay on Beverly Hills 90210, Carol's boyfriend Sandy (played by Matthew Perry) on Growing Pains, multiple deaths on Downton Abbey, Sesame Street's Mr. Hooper — what other TV deaths left an impression on you?

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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