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12 Very Special 'Very Special Episodes'

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Some TV shows are custom-made for Very Special Episodes. With all those girls on the cusp of adulthood at the Eastland Academy on The Facts of Life, it was inevitable that at least one of them would lose their virginity before graduation, leading to a poignant, thought-provoking episode. But plenty of other hot-button issues were used as plot devices. From the creepy bicycle man on Diff'rent Strokes to Alex Keaton's alcoholic uncle, here are some of TV's most memorable teachable moments.

1. Diff’rent Strokes: “The Bicycle Man”

This episode was considered disturbing enough for Conrad Bain to present a parental warning at the beginning. Even the narrator who catches us up on the action from Part One of this two-parter sounds kinda creepy, setting the appropriately dark tone for Gordon Jump (loveable, bumbling “Big Guy” Mr. Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati) to portray a bicycle store-owning pedophile.

Mr. Horton lures young boys to his store with free accessories for their rides as well as free pizza, ice cream and … wine. (Cue the ominous music.) Arnold and his friend Dudley fall prey to his tactics and soon they’re shirtless, playing Tarzan, and posing for Polaroids. No amount of “whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout” could lighten up the slimy feel of this episode, but at least Mr. Drummond called the cops on the creep.

2. All in the Family: “Edith’s 50th Birthday”

All in the Family certainly never shied away from controversial issues, but did we really need to see sweet, naïve Edith Bunker get sexually assaulted in her living room?

The writers had actually already covered this topic in Season 3, when Gloria was attacked while walking home from work. But that assault wasn’t shown, just talked about, which was disturbing enough. In this episode Edith is home alone one afternoon while Archie is next door at Mike and Gloria’s house preparing for Edith’s surprise birthday party. Edith answers the door and allows the man who identifies himself as a detective to enter. Unfortunately, the rapist he is searching the neighborhood for (whom he describes in detail as he advances on Edith) is actually himself. After a lengthy and excruciating exchange of banter during which Edith tries her best to discourage him they both smell smoke and run to the kitchen. The cake she had in the oven was burning. A seemingly hysterical Edith removes it from the stove and then shoves it square in her attacker’s face, which prompted deafening cheers from the studio audience.

Some 20 years after this episode aired, David Dukes, the respected Broadway actor who’d played the attacker, was regularly recognized (and demonized) on the street as “the man who tried to rape Edith Bunker!”

3. Family Ties: “Give Uncle Arthur a Kiss”

Arthur was an uncle by virtue of friendship rather than kin; he worked with Steven at the TV station and was a Keaton family friend. One day when 15-year-old Mallory is helping out at WKS, Arthur corners her while she’s alone and comments on how grown-up she’s becoming (always a skeevy red flag when it comes to “funny” uncles). He embraces her but the hug is a little too tight for Mallory’s liking, and when he pats her on the backside she is definitely uncomfortable, but unsure if Good Ol’ Uncle Arthur actually did anything wrong … or if she just misinterpreted his camaraderie?

There’s no confusion, though, the next day when—after apologizing for frightening her that way—he pulls her close for an open-mouthed kiss. Even more unsettling is that once Mallory clues her parents in on what’s going on, all they do is give Arthur a severe talking-to, threatening to involve the police only if he ever does something like that again.

4. Punky Brewster: “Cherie Lifesaver”

Henry, Punky’s guardian, is forced to discard his WWII-era refrigerator when it finally conks out for good. He sets it out in the backyard, but a sudden light snowfall prompts him to delay removing the door until later. The snow doesn’t deter Punky and her pals from playing hide-and-seek, and Cherie chooses the ancient fridge as her hiding spot. When Henry finds her later, of course she is unconscious and not breathing. Luckily that very day Punky’s class had been taught CPR at school, so Cherie is revived in the nick of time.

(Of course, by law in the U.S. all refrigerators sold after October 30, 1958 have been required to be open-able from the inside to prevent such a tragedy, but thanks to parsimonious consumers like Henry, kids were still occasionally found suffocated inside those old built-to-last models until the mid-1980s.)

5. Too Close for Comfort: “For Every Man There’s Two Women”

This was one of those episodes that was so lowbrow, some folks think they’d only imagined it. The Rush’s wacky tenant Monroe (played by Jm J. Bullock, as he was known then) was kidnapped en route to work by two women and then forced to have sex with them. But, because Monroe was a male and his attackers female (and of the bulky persuasion), the writers somehow thought it was OK to squeeze some cheap laughs out of a rape.

6. Little House on the Prairie: “Sylvia”

Frustrated folks that long for the simpler life of Yesteryear should stop and consider the realities of pioneer life … Take Walnut Grove, for example. If kids weren’t going blind, they were being orphaned or dying in fires. And then there was the case of the town’s sinister blacksmith, who spent his days off stalking young girls while wearing a mime mask.

Fifteen-year-old Sylvia Webb is being raised by a puritanical father who believes she’s inherently evil just because she hit puberty earlier than her classmates. He forces her to bind her burgeoning bosom and is outraged to find the neighborhood boys peeping at her while she dresses. Poor Sylvia eventually is attacked by the Stalker Blacksmith and ends up “with child.” Albert Ingalls, who professes to love her though he’s only 14 himself and his voice hasn’t finished changing, wants to marry her. Before the star-crossed teens can elope, though, Sylvia suffers a fatal fall from a hayloft.

7. Diff’rent Strokes: “Sam’s Missing”

As if Sam McKinney wasn’t emotionally scarred enough by having his mom change from Dixie Carter to Mary Ann Mobley without explanation, he was also kidnapped in Season Eight by a despondent father whose own son has died in an off-screen accident of some sort. The kidnapper threatens to kill Mr. Drummond and his new wife if Sam doesn’t stop acting traumatized and behave like his loving new son. Meanwhile, Kidnapper has convinced his gullible grieving wife that he’d found homeless Sam living on the street in a cardboard box. After a week with his “new” family, Sam is finally found and rescued, and apparently none the worse for his adventure.

8. Family Affair: “Christmas Came a Little Early”

Usually on Family Affair, Uncle Bill’s endlessly deep pockets solved any crisis, but even after calling in a top specialist of some sort, he was unable to offer any hope to a pre-Brady Bunch Eve Plumb. Eve played a terminally ill friend of Buffy’s, but only the adults knew of her dire prognosis. Realizing that Eve might not make it ‘til December, Uncle Bill decided that she should still have a Christmas, even if it was several weeks early. Using the excuse that he would be in Venezuela come December 25th, he bought a tree and gifts and dressed Mr. French up as Santa Claus and held the party in Eve’s family’s apartment. Afterward he confided to Mr. French that the children didn’t suspect that anything was amiss, but as he headed off for bed for the evening he hears heart-wrenching sobs coming from Buffy’s bedroom. He poked his head inside the door to see her clutching Mrs. Beasley and crying.

9. Family Ties: “Say Uncle”

When Elise’s brother Ned (played by Tom Hanks) pays a visit, his newly developed drinking problem is played for laughs at first—Alex encounters Ned late at night in the kitchen draining the last of the liquor and then watches him guzzle vanilla extract and a bottle of maraschino cherries. When he shows up sozzled for a job interview it’s still pretty funny (for the audience, at least). But when Ned turns into a mean drunk and smacks Alex in the face, things take a serious turn. Hanks turns in a heartbreaking performance when he phones Alcoholics Anonymous and slowly goes from clowning around to admitting his problem.

10. Mr. Belvedere: “The Counselor”

In an unusual twist, it wasn’t some tertiary character who was the subject of the Very Specialness in this episode, but series regular Wesley T. Owens. Wes goes off to a summer day camp under protest. When he fakes illness to avoid a nature hike, he is left in the care of Counselor Perry. Perry takes Wes scuba diving and then gets a little too touchy-feely when helping to dry him off. To encourage the boy to keep their “little secret” Perry gives Wesley an expensive pair of binoculars as a gift, but even so Wes is uneasy about being around the counselor…

11. Leave It to Beaver: “Beaver and Andy”

The normally light-hearted show about childhood innocence took a somber turn when Ward hired Andy, a recovering alcoholic, to paint the outside of the Cleaver house. In order to protect young Beaver from the harsh realities of Life, they only refer vaguely to Andy’s “problem.” So when Beav is home alone one sultry afternoon while Andy requests a drink (preferably something stronger than lemonade), the clueless youngster offers a bottle of the stuff that Uncle Billy sends them every Christmas. Andy relapses, and Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver are shocked to discover that Theodore was the enabler. Beaver then wonders aloud how he was supposed to know that what he did was wrong, since his folks never explained what Andy’s “trouble” was. You can watch the episode here.

12. And of course, this:

Were there any TV episodes that traumatized you as a child? Or that have stuck in your mind as being disturbing all these years later? It can be therapeutic to share, you know.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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