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11 Pop Culture References Younger Readers Won't Get

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If someone is described as meaner than Simon Cowell or a bigger lush than Snooki, you probably understand the reference. But will anyone get those same jokes in 30 years? Take a look at some common pop culture references from years gone by:

1. Mutt and Jeff

Mutt and Jeff were two comic strip characters created by Bud Fisher in 1907. Augustus Mutt was a tall, lanky ne’er-do-well who liked to bet on the ponies, while his pal Othello Jeff was short, rotund and shared Mutt's passion for “get rich quick” schemes. The strip became so popular that “Mutt and Jeff” entered the lexicon to describe any duo consisting of a tall person and a short person.

2. Euell Gibbons

Today we might describe natural food enthusiasts as “crunchy granola types,” but at one time it would have sufficed simply to compare them to Euell Gibbons. The health food fanatic gained fame after appearing in a series of TV commercials for Grape Nuts cereal. Lines like “Have you ever tasted a pine tree? Several parts are edible” made him ready fodder for talk show hosts and comedians in the 1970s.

http://youtu.be/mOx_EOau2oo 

3. Mortimer Snerd

In today’s parlance a clueless doofus is often described as “…and he was all like ‘duh’.” Years ago a typical “D’oh!”-boy was referred to as a regular Mortimer Snerd, referring to a not-so-bright dummy used by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen:

http://youtu.be/xkrzFQc3BgA

4. Rula Lenska

If anyone personified Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, it was Rula Lenska. American audiences first became acquainted with her in a series of TV commercials for Alberto VO5 hair products. What made poor Rula an eventual punch line was the caption that appeared as she introduced herself – it said simply “famous actress.” Johnny Carson and other personalities were off and running after the first few ads were broadcast, comparing any name in the news to Rula “Who the Heck Is She?” Lenska. The folks at Alberto Culver got the message and changed the caption on future commercials to explain that Rula Lenska was an “English Television and Theater Star”.

http://youtu.be/lqUxUC8L0aU

5. Anita Bryant

As Miss Oklahoma, Anita Bryant finished as second runner-up in the 1959 Miss America pageant. Ten years later she became the spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Commission and appeared in a series of TV commercials singing the praises of orange juice. Then in 1977 she led a highly publicized campaign to repeal a Dade County, Florida, ordinance that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. Her statements equating homosexuals with child molesters resulted in a national backlash that, for many years, made “Anita Bryant” a common insult directed at any person displaying an intolerance for gay people.

http://youtu.be/3ld8DQkC6po

6. Twiggy

Twiggy (born Leslie Hornsby) was just 16 years old when her career as a fashion model was launched. Dubbed “The Face of ‘66,” Twiggy was the darling of Swinging London and Carnaby Street. At 5’7” tall she weighed a mere 90 lbs. and her stick-like figure set a new fashion standard. It also became a common point of reference when describing body types; an overweight person could be tactfully described as “Well, she’s no Twiggy” while a too-thin person would “make Twiggy look fat!” Kids today may recognize her as a former judge on America's Next Top Model.

7. Phyllis Diller

Ever since punk rock and the New Wave fashions of the 1980s, it’s pretty hard to actually look outrageous anymore. But back in the 1960s and 70s, folks tended to dress a tad more conservatively, so comedienne Phyllis Diller was able to elicit laughs just by stepping onstage with her wild fright-wig hair and tacky outfits. Likewise, men used to get lots of mileage out of lines like “She looked just like Raquel Welch last night when I took her home, but then this morning I woke up with Phyllis Diller!”

http://youtu.be/mH66_tFP8VA

8. Archie Bunker

Back before we used euphemistic terms like “red states” and “blue states”, we tended to tread a bit more lightly when it came to calling out someone on their political beliefs. Rather than outright referring to someone as a bigot, it was understood what was meant if you compared them to the central character of TV’s All in the Family. (And doing so thusly somewhat softened the critique, since Archie was considered to be something of a “loveable” bigot.)

http://youtu.be/rStu_cfDx-Y

9. Foster Brooks

Today’s TV alcoholics are different, and not as omnipresent as they once were (see Will and Grace's functional drunk Karen Walker, for example). But once upon a time it was not offensive nor politically incorrect to find humor in the pseudo-drunken antics of Foster Brooks, who based an entire career on the unsteady gait and slurred speech of the stereotypical over-imbiber. During that same era, anyone would catch your drift if you described someone as being “as excited as Foster Brooks during Happy Hour.”

http://youtu.be/xvAIFsIduF4

10. Eddie Haskell

Not everyone remembers Leave It to Beaver from either its original run on TV or its various syndication stints, so there are some folks who can’t appreciate the delicious appropriateness of describing an unctuous slimy wise-guy as an “Eddie Haskell” type. Actor Ken Osmond was pitch-perfect when he delivered lines like: “Wally, if your dumb brother tags along, I'm gonna -- oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Cleaver. I was just telling Wallace how pleasant it would be for Theodore to accompany us to the movies.”

http://youtu.be/TYcqPbpRX9I

11. Wimpy

You may have at one time or another described someone as “wimpy” because they were cowardly, lazy, thrifty, and/or gluttonous. But that description was popularized by a character in the original Popeye comic strip named J. Wellington Wimpy. Wimpy had a weakness for hamburgers (in fact, there is a fast food burger chain in the UK called Wimpy’s) and his famous plea to the grill cook, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” eventually became a catchphrase for “spot me now, I’ll pay you later."

What are some references you've used that seem to baffle the next generation?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

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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