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RIP Sherman Hemsley: 6 Stories About The Jeffersons

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Actor Sherman Hemsley has passed away at the age of 74. Raised by a single mom in Philadelphia, the diminutive actor dropped out of high school in order to join the Air Force. After serving four years, he took a job with the U.S. Postal Service during the day for the next eight years while studying acting at various night classes and workshops. He eventually worked his way to Broadway, which is where TV producer Norman Lear spotted him.

Unlike many actors who spend a lifetime distancing themselves from a character, Hemsley embraced being typecast as blustery, opinionated George Jefferson and parlayed that persona into steady work. Besides various sitcoms and commercials after The Jeffersons was cancelled, he was even booked as a keynote speaker at many dry cleaning industry conventions! We hope you enjoy this rerun of a previous column as Sherman Hemsley moves on up to the ultimate deluxe apartment in the sky...

January 1975 saw the premiere of an All in the Family spin-off starring the Bunkers' next door neighbors, The Jeffersons. Not only did this new sitcom spend more time on the air (11 seasons) than the parent which spawned it, it also reigns as the longest-running American TV series with a predominantly African-American cast.

1. A Piece of the Pie

The JeffersonsThe character of George Jefferson was as opinionated and bigoted as Archie Bunker - and certainly as vocal - but he was also much smarter and more ambitious.

George had always been a savvy businessman. As a child, he earned money shining shoes, and business boomed when he paid a friend to push people into mud puddles to create customers. When George received $3,200 in an insurance settlement after a car accident, he used the cash to purchase a dry cleaning store. With hard work and dedication, he expanded that one outlet into a seven-store chain, which prompted the social-climbing George to move his family to a luxury apartment in a Manhattan high-rise.

2. Where's George?

Henry & George JeffersonFrom the character's first appearance on All in the Family, producer Norman Lear had pegged Sherman Hemsley to play George Jefferson. But when All in the Family became a hit, Hemsley was tied up on Broadway as the co-star of Purlie, and was understandably reluctant to break his contract. Lear improvised and hired Mel Stewart as a sort of "placeholder." In the sitcom's storyline, Stewart posed as George Jefferson when he joined George's wife Louise (played by Isabel Sanford) for dinner at the Bunker home. It was later revealed that he was actually Henry Jefferson, George's brother. The excuse given for George's absence was that he refused to break bread with the Bunkers. Henry Jefferson appeared in a few more All in the Family episodes before Hemsley assumed the role of the Jefferson family patriarch.

3. Weezy!

George & Louise JeffersonIsabel Sanford was 50 years of age when she got her big break in show business: The role of the disapproving maid, Tillie, in the hit film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?. Her performance caught the eye of Norman Lear, and he cast her as Louise Jefferson, a role which would net her an Emmy Award. The on-air chemistry between Sanford and Hemsley was so perfect that the two appeared together on TV commercials and other sitcoms as George and Weezy for years after The Jeffersons ended. They were so convincing as a married couple, in fact, that most viewers didn't realize that Sanford was 21 years older than Hemsley; old enough to be his mother!

4. Let Love Rule

When Roxie Roker auditioned for the role of Jeffersons neighbor Helen Willis, producers worried whether she would be believable as an African-American woman married to a white man. Roker promptly produced a family photo that that depicted her Caucasian husband, TV producer Sy Kravitz. To keep an eye on him, Roker often brought her school-aged son, Leonard, to the set. She confided to her co-stars her worry that the youngster didn't seem to be interested in anything other than music. She need not have been concerned, of course; little Lenny Kravitz grew up to win a surplus of Grammy Awards, American Music Awards, platinum albums, and other assorted honors.

5. Waiting for Bentley

Paul Benedict was performing with Theatre Company of Boston in the 1960s when an audience member came backstage and introduced himself as an endocrinologist. He then told Benedict that, based on his facial structure "“ particularly his oversized chin - he might be suffering from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly. Thanks to this early diagnosis, Benedict was able to get treatment while the disease was in its early stages. Before he landed the role of quirky British neighbor (and United Nations translator) Harry Bentley on The Jeffersons, Benedict was best known as Sesame Street's "Mad Painter." He performed in 10 skits that proved so popular with viewers that they were re-run for 15 years on subsequent episodes before being pulled from the mix in the mid-1980s. The reason? Some feared that the Painter's antics might inspire the country's youth to express themselves through illegal graffiti. The actor behind Bentley wasn't British; he grew up in Massachusetts.

6. Beans Don't Burn on the Grill

"Movin' On Up," the toe-tappin', gospel-flavored theme song for The Jeffersons, was co-written by Jeff Barry and Ja'Net Dubois. Barry was a veteran Brill Building songwriter with hits like "Leader of the Pack" in his portfolio; Dubois was best known as gossipy neighbor Willona Woods on another popular African-American sitcom, Good Times. Ja'Net belted out the lyrics with such confidence that it's hard to believe that "Movin' On Up" marked her debut as a professional singer.

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technology
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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