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11 Internet-Related Plots from '90s TV Shows

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Back when I was running up $500 Prodigy bills on my parents’ dime, the World Wide Web was perfect plot fodder for television shows. What was cutting edge at the time seems clunkier than Zack Morris’ cell phone today, so fire up that old modem and enjoy the dated technology of your favorite '90s shows.

1. Home Improvement, “Reality Bytes,” 1994

The Plot: Using old love letters Tim wrote to Jill, Randy virtually hits on a 25-year-old woman he met online. The kicker? She thinks he’s a 32-year-old, Ferrari-driving dermatologist. But then she shows up at his house, awwww snap.
Lesson Learned: Always show up to a stranger’s house unannounced when you’ve only ever met online. That could never end badly.
Words of Wisdom: “We’ve been sending love letters back and forth through this singles bulletin board on the computer.”

“Well, that’s the beauty of this. She’s never going to find out. She lives in St. Louis.”

Oh, Randy. Don’t know you know that on sitcoms, they always find out?

Bonus: The sweet ‘90s fashions of JTT may inspire nostalgia for the days when you thought overalls were the height of fashion. Watch the whole episode here.

2. Roseanne, “Construction Junction,” 1996

The Plot: Jackie gets a new computer and becomes addicted to America Online within minutes, which is actually what happened to everyone back in the '90s.
Lesson Learned: Internet addiction was a problem even when all we had to obsess over were Geocities pages and Jaleel White fan chats.
Words of Wisdom: “That magic box sings and talks and plays music. It’s kind of like Grandma after her second Manhattan.”

Jackie: “Aren’t these supposed to give out some sort of a death ray?”
David: “Not unless you push control-alt-death ray.”

Jackie: “Not now, David, I’m learning useful things. I’m growing as a person.”
David: “You’re in the Urkel chat room!”

3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “I Robot, You Jane,” 1997


The Plot: Willow meets an awesome guy online. Too bad he’s a demon that was summoned when she scanned the text of an ancient book into the computer.
Lesson Learned: If a guy you met online gets too pushy about meeting you, he likely just wants your help in controlling the universe.
Words of Wisdom: “Right, I mean, we read about this all the time. People meet on the net, they get together, they talk, have dinner, a show—horrible axe murder.”

“Is there a way to find out exactly where a letter— an e-letter—came from? I mean, the actual location of the computer?”

4. Friends, “The One with Barry and Mindy’s Wedding,” 1996

The Plot: Chandler finds the perfect woman online. Surprise! It’s Janice, because of course it is.

Lesson Learned: Thanks to the Internet, that one annoying person you go out of your way to avoid will always find you. And hey, this was even before Facebook.

Words of Wisdom:
Phoebe: “What does she mean by ‘hh’?”
Chandler: “It means we’re holding hands.”

The clip isn’t from this particular episode, but the capabilities of Chandler’s new computer are truly amazing.

5. The X-Files, “2Shy,” 1995


The Plot: Mulder and Scully think a serial killer is finding his victims by paying attention to some lonely hearts stereotypes in chat rooms.
Lesson Learned: Pretty much anyone you meet online is an ancient supernatural being with an AOL addiction. They haunted chat rooms in the ‘90s, but now they’re mostly over at 4chan.
Words of Wisdom: “You’re more than a monster. You didn’t just feed on their bodies; you fed on their minds.”

6. Ghostwriter, “Who is Max Mouse?” 1993-1994

The Plot: In this four-episode case, a hacker wreaks havoc on the Hurston School’s mainframe, causing fire alarms, changing grades, and even leaving threatening messages like, “Our principal, Ms. Kelly, is dead!” Adults can’t seem to figure out how to catch this cyber-crook, but Ghostwriter can!
Lesson Learned: When you don’t know how to do something on the Interwebs, check with someone younger than you.
Words of Wisdom: “Now, a hacker is someone who tries to sneak into someone else’s computer system.”

“A modem is like ... it’s like a telephone for computers. Computers with modems can talk to each other.”

Bonus: Check out a young Julia Stiles as Erica, one of the hacker suspects.

7. Are You Afraid of the Dark?, “The Tale of the Virtual Pets,” 1999


The Plot: A Luddite tween named Kate has to save her friends from being body-snatched by aliens living online and in Tamagotchi-like pets.
Lesson learned: Any game that requires you to keep up with it in real or semi-real time will steal your brain. See: World of Warcraft, the Sims, Animal Crossing.
Words of Wisdom: “I don’t know what ‘upload’ means and I don’t care.”

8. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, "To Thine Old Self Be Blue...and Gold," 1995

The Plot: In what was clearly one of the best Internet plots of the mid-90s, Carlton ("Hershey's Kiss") and Hillary ("Brown Sugar") use a matchmaking site and end up on a blind date with one another. Geoffrey knows what’s up but doesn’t bother to tell either of them. Hilarity ensues.
Lesson Learned: In addition to making sure you’re aware of any sibling presence on the romance chat lines you frequent, maybe check with your parents to make sure there are no long-lost brothers or sisters you could accidentally end up dating. Because apparently that sometimes happens.
Words of Wisdom: “This romance chat line on the Internet happens to be a great way to meet the babes.”

9. The Simpsons, “Das Bus,” 1998

The Plot: After finding out that Flanders has his own religious hook rug store online, Homer launches his own dot-com, Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net.

Lesson Learned: If you build a successful online enterprise, Bill Gates will destroy it.

Words of Wisdom: “Oh, they have the Internet on computers now!”

“I'm interested in upgrading my 28.8 kilobaud internet connection to a 1.5 megabit fiber optic T1 line. Will you be able to provide an IP router that's compatible with my token ring ethernet LAN configuration?”

10. Home Improvement, “What You See is What You Get,” 1994

The Plot: While Jill is researching an article about women who get plastic surgery because their husbands want them to, she discovers that Tim might be one of those husbands.
Lesson Learned: Use Photoshop for good, not evil.
Words of Wisdom: “I even have this computer program that shows you how you can change your appearance.”

11. The Net TV series, 1998

The Plot: Computer expert Angela Bennett accidentally receives an email about the inner workings of an identity-stealing terrorist organization. When they find out she knows about their devious plans, they steal her identity and give her a new one, which happens to be on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Luckily, an unidentified informant named “The Sorcerer” (Tim Curry) helps her stay a step ahead of the baddies.
Lessons Learned: Nobody is safe from identity theft. Also, in times of need, Tim Curry will always come to your rescue. (This is not an Internet-related lesson, just a life lesson in general.)

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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