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Youtube/Erin McCarthy

11 Vintage Celebrity PSAs

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Youtube/Erin McCarthy

They don't make Public Service Announcements (PSA) like they used to. The late 1970s, '80s, and early '90s were the golden age of the PSA. The best announcements often featured celebrities, who were happy to lend their star power to support causes from the war on drugs to protecting America’s public spaces and automobile safety to teaching kids the difference between a good touch and a bad one. Here are a few of our favorite PSAs from that era (and make sure to clue us in to your favorites in the comments!).

1. “Strong Kids, Safe Kids,” featuring Henry Winkler, John Ritter, and More

This 42 minute educational video/PSA, which teaches kids about sexual abuse, features Henry Winkler (as both himself and the Fonz) and a few other celebrities, as well as one guy singing uncomfortable-yet-informative songs about what to call body parts (the song starts at about the 10 minute mark).

2. “Before it’s Too Late, Vaccinate,” featuring Bill Cosby

Who could have predicted that this ‘80s PSA, which recommends that parents get their kids vaccinated “before it’s too late,” would still be necessary today?

Cosby frequently appeared in PSAs: He advocated for the Red Cross and Farm Aid, and filmed spots warning about the dangers of drugs, urging people to register to vote, and more.

3. "Clean up New York," by David Lynch

This video doesn’t feature a celebrity, but it was made by one: David Lynch, the man behind films like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive as well as the television show Twin Peaks. Never have the consequences of littering been so horrifying.

4. “Don’t Even Try It,” featuring Pee Wee Herman

In full Pee Wee costume, Paul Reubens warned kids (or maybe everyone?) about the dangers of crack cocaine in this ‘80s PSA. And he wasn’t the only celebrity to do so: Olivia Newton-John and Clint Eastwood filmed somber spots, too.

5. “Too Legit To Quit,” featuring MC Hammer

In this PSA, Hammer uses his hit song to teach proper grammar and urge kids to stay in school.

6. “Don’t Smoke, R2!” featuring characters from Star Wars

Everyone’s favorite robotic duo from a galaxy far, far away worked to keep kids from smoking in this PSA. C3P0 and R2D2 (played by Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker, respectively) weren’t the only Star Wars characters to film a clip for a cause; another PSA warns about the dangers of drinking at the Cantina and driving.

7. “Take Pride in America,” featuring Clint Eastwood

I wouldn’t litter if it made Clint Eastwood angry, either.

8. “Don’t Play with Matches,” featuring Michael J. Fox

In this PSA—from a series called “One to Grow On,” which aired during NBC's Saturday morning cartoon programming from 1983 to 1989—Fox tells kids that there's nothing hot about playing with matches.

Also featured in “One to Grow On” spots: Justine Bateman, David Hasselhoff, and Mr. T, among many, many others. 

9. “Be Smart, Don’t Start,” featuring the Jets

What better way to drive home the dangers of teen drinking than with a catchy song by popular family band The Jets?

10. “Try to Remember Electrocution,” featuring Alf

This 1987 PSA appeared at the end of the episode "Try to Remember," in which Alf gets shocked while using a hand mixer in the bathtub and loses his memory. (After the episode aired, it was edited to remove any instances of electrocution—instead, Alf bumps his head in the tub.) The alien, voiced by Paul Fusco, also appeared in a “Keep America Beautiful” PSA.

11. “Buckle Up,” featuring Joey Lawrence

Before he voiced the title character in Disney's animated version of Oliver & Company and made "Whoa!" his catchphrase on Blossom, Joey Lawrence appeared in this Department of Transportation PSA, urging kids to buckle up (and asking parents to set a good example by doing the same).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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May 23, 2017
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