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The Late Movies: Saying Goodbye to Mr. Hooper

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Despite being a puppet show for kids, Sesame Street has always done its best to push boundaries in the pursuit of children's education. One of the earliest examples of this was when they attempted to teach kids about death after the passing of Will Lee, the actor who portrayed Mr. Hooper.

A veteran actor throughout the 1930s and '40s, Will Lee was among the blacklisted actors during the McCarthy Era. His acting career made a small resurgence in the 1960s, but he mostly made his living by teaching. (Among his most famous students was James Earl Jones, who later repaid the favor by appearing on the debut episode of Sesame Street.) Lee appeared as Mr. Hooper in the first episode of Sesame Street in 1969, and he remained a core member of the cast until his death in 1982.

Since most children's programs don't last as long as Sesame Street, it's rare that a show would have to deal with the death of a cast member. The producers considered explaining his absence with a retirement to Florida, but opted to take the challenge of honoring Lee's death by turning it into an educational experience.

The 1,839th episode of Sesame Street aired on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. The reasoning behind the date was because families were more likely to be together to help the kids in the audience in case they had questions or needed emotional support.

Balancing out the "Street Scenes" were the usual Sesame Street songs and cartoons to keep the air from becoming too serious or too alien to the kids. Among the other content seen in this episode was a Sesame Street pageant about feelings, Bert and Ernie at the movies, a cartoon about a "jive" #5, a song by Grover and Madeline Kahn, a "Muppet/kid moment" with Bert and everyone's favorite Sesame kid John-John, and more.

Below, you'll see the rest of the episode, in which Sesame Street's writers, producers, actors, and puppeteers brilliantly construct their lesson in a tender and patient way, as well as offer a proper farewell to Will Lee and Mr. Hooper.

Forgetful Jones and Bertram — er, Gordon — begin our episode with a cute discussion about the simple things that can make you happy. It will be an important thing to keep in mind by the end of the hour.

Big Bird is walking around with his head between his legs. Why is he doing it. "Just because." Which is a good enough reason for a lot of things.

Big Bird overhears all the grownups having a conversation, which starts out confusing, but ends up being shown in a way he can understand. That is, until the conversation turns to politics.

In the most famous scene from the episode, the adults reveal to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper has died, and he's not coming back. According to the actors, all of their tears were real. This scene was released on the Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days retrospective DVD.

Big Bird honors Mr. Hooper by hanging his picture (actually drawn by Big Bird's performer Caroll Spinney) over his nest, where it still hangs today. He's also introduced to a new baby, thus completing the circle of life and death according to Sesame Street.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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