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15 Polarizing TV Plot Points

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Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

Sometimes TV shows take their plotlines too far; sometimes, they don't go far enough. Either way, viewers typically aren't afraid to voice their frustrations. Here are 15 plot points (and sometimes, major cliffhangers) that have elicited a strong reaction from fans. Spoilers ahead!

1. Dallas – “A House Divided,” March 21, 1980 (Season 3)

In its season 3 finale, Dallas posed the question that TV watchers talked about all summer long: Who Shot J.R.? It was a viral campaign, the first of its kind, to make sure viewers would tune back in for the season 4 premiere in the fall. This time, it wasn't the content that angered Dallas fans—it was the wait. Those wanting to know who shot J.R. (the show's nasty lead, played by Larry Hagman) didn't get the answer until the fourth episode of the season, making many think the network pushed the reveal to coincide with November sweeps.  (In reality, the shooter wasn't revealed because the writers had to work around both Hagman's holdout for a salary increase and the Screen Actors Guild strike.) More than 90 million U.S. viewers tuned in, and the episode still holds the record internationally for highest rated episode with nearly 360 million viewers.

2. The Sopranos – “Made in America,” June 10, 2007 (Season 6)

In the series finale of The Sopranos, mobster Tony Soprano and his family gather at a diner for supper; an unknown man watches them from the counter. The man goes to the bathroom and glances over at Tony. When his daughter, Meadow, enters the restaurant, Tony looks up and—cut to black. The finale sent viewers into a tizzy: Did the cable go out? Did the DVR malfunction? Once they realized that was truly the end of the series, fans were outraged.

3. St. Elsewhere – “The Last One,” May 25, 1988 (Season 6)

After six seasons of an '80s version of Grey's Anatomy, it was revealed that the whole show was the figment of an autistic child's imagation. Tommy Westphall, the son of the show's fictional hospital's director of medicine, is shown looking into a snow globe in the show's final scene. Tommy's dad is revealed to actually be a construction worker, and what was in the snow globe? St. Eligius Hospital. Viewers were outraged that their beloved show was really, really fictional. Because there were many cross-overs between St. Elsewhere and many other shows, some believe that a good chunk of episodic television was a part of Tommy's imagination. This theory is called the "Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis."

4. Little House on the Prairie – “The Last Farewell,” Feb. 6, 1984 (Post-Series Movie)

After 184 episodes on the air, Little House on the Prairie wrapped up with three TV movies. In the final installment, the town learns that a railroad tycoon owns the deed to their township, but instead of moving away, the citizens decide to blow up the town. The plot point came about thanks to an agreement the production company had with Newhall Land and Development, which owned the site where the set was built. The Prairie crew had promised to return the parcel to its original, building-free state, and decided that the easiest way to level the structures was an explosion that could also be written into the movie—but viewers were angry that the town they had grown to love was destroyed. 

5. Seinfeld – “The Finale,” May 14, 1998 (Season 9)

After nine seasons of nothing, viewers almost expected Seinfeld to get real for the finale. Nope. The crew went to jail on some wacky Good Samaritan violation, and the show ended with the same conversation from the pilot, revolving around George's shirt buttons.

6. Roseanne – “Into That Good Night, Part 2,” May 20, 1997 (Season 9)

After nine seasons, Roseanne ended on a very different note than the show's usual tone. It got serious. Roseanne revealed that things in her life weren't as they seemed: Her children really married other people, her sister was a lesbian and, most dramatically, her husband died after his heart attack at Darlene's wedding in Season 8. Fans were already on edge during the whole final season because of its absurd lottery fantasy, but the seriousness of the final episode ruined the theme of the show.

7. Quantum Leap – “Mirror Image,” May 5, 1993 (Season 5)

In the promo above, the network billed the episode as "the final leap," which led viewers to think that Dr. Sam Beckett would finally be leaping back home to his present time. In the end, it's revealed that Sam never goes home and continues to travel through time, correcting mistakes of the past. Fans who wanted a concrete ending—a final chapter of Dr. Beckett's story—were disappointed.

8. Bones – “The End in the Beginning,” May 14, 2009 (Season 4)

From the beginning, fans of the show "shipped" its leads, Booth and Bones. In this season four finale, the two are a couple and even own a nightclub. But not so fast! It's revealed that all of this is just a part of Booth's dream while he's in a coma, and viewers who wanted the pair to get together felt cheated.

9. Heroes – “How to Stop an Exploding Man,” May 21, 2007 (Season 1)

By the end of season one, Sylar and Peter were at each other's throats, and fans were expecting to see an epic showdown. What was delivered in the finale, though, was Sylar escaping while Peter's brother flew Peter's nuclear-charged body high into the sky to save the world from destruction. Fans were unsatisfied by the lackluster ending.

10. Alias – “Before the Flood,” May 25, 2005 (Season 4)

Sydney Bristow and her CIA handler/lover Michael Vaughn were finally going to get a happy ending in the season four finale. While en route to their dream destination in Santa Barbara, Vaughn revealed it was no coincidence he was Sydney's boss, and oh, his name wasn't Vaughn. Before he could explain, the two were struck by another vehicle. Viewers had to wait the whole summer to find out if the couple would survive not just the crash, but Vaughn's revelation (which made them mad, too). Fans were angry because this was basically a reset button after having waited four seasons for the couple to get a happy ending.

11. Newhart – “The Last Newhart,” May 21, 1990 (Season 8)

A few years before Bob Newhart played the mild-mannered Dick Loudon who moved to a rural Vermont town to open a hotel on Newhart, he was a Chicago psychologist in The Bob Newhart Show. The Newhart finale poked fun at Dallas by having Dick Loudon wake up as Dr. Robert Harley in bed in his Chicago apartment next to Suzanne Pleshette—the entire Newhart series had been a dream!

12. Firefly – “Objects in Space,” Dec. 13, 2002 (Season 2)

Fans were angry because Firefly, a critically-acclaimed series, didn't even get a proper finale. The show was canceled by Fox after airing 11 of the 14 episodes that had been filmed. Fans felt that Fox—which had aired the episodes out of order—didn't give the series a fair shake. (The show finally got a movie, Serenity, but many fans of the series would still like to see it return to TV.)

13. LOST – “The End,” May 23, 2010 (Season 6)

After all of the flashbacks, flashforwards, and flash-sideways, LOST fanatics were expecting a stellar ending that answered the many questions posed by the series. But the final episode didn't deliver all of the answers; even the ending isn't exactly clear, and there have been many interpretations as to what it meant. Fan reactions immediately after the finale were all over the map, and many are still annoyed.

14. Dynasty — "Royal Wedding," May 15, 1985 (Season 5)

As the entire Carrington clan attends Amanda's wedding to Prince Michael of Moldavia, the chapel is peppered with bullets from a group of terrorists involved in a political coup. The episode ends with most of the cast motionless on the floor, leaving viewers to wonder if anyone survived. In 2011, Entertainment Weekly ranked this season finale (often referred to as the "Moldavian Massacre" episode) as one of the most unforgettable cliffhangers in prime-time history.

15. South Park — "Cartman's Mom is a Dirty Slut," Feb. 28, 1998 (Season 1)

South Park Studios

Because of a multitude of hook-ups back in the day at an annual party called "The Drunken Barn Dance," Eric Cartman finds out that his mom isn't sure who his father is. The season ends with a DNA test (including every member of the Denver Broncos) and the promise of a resolution in the season 2 premiere. But when the premiere came and went with no news of Cartman's real father, fans were outraged.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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