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6 Classic Canadian Kids’ TV Shows

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Did Bimbo the Birthday Clown ever read your name on TV? Did you keep your toys in a Tickle Trunk? If you grew up in Canada or a border city in the 1960s and 1970s, these TV series were probably as much a part of your morning as milk on your corn flakes.

1. The Friendly Giant

Millions of Canadian kids, remember looking up—“waaaaay up”—every day to watch The Friendly Giant. The story-telling tall guy was played by Wisconsin native Bob Homme, who was so low-key that he made Mr. Rogers look like a caffeine addict. "Friendly" always opened and closed his show by arranging the furniture in front of his fireplace to allow viewers to settle in a rocking chair for those who liked to rock, or a large armchair for two to curl up in. He was ably assisted by two puppet pals, Rusty the Rooster (who lived in a book bag) and Jerome the Giraffe (who lived outside and poked his head in through the window). The show's theme song, "Early One Morning," was once voted the second-most recognized TV theme song in Canada, after "Hockey Night in Canada."

2. Mr. Dressup

How iconic is Mr. Dressup in the Great White North? On what would have been his 85th birthday, he was featured in a Doodle on Google Canada’s website. Pretty impressive tribute for a guy who started out in the business as an assistant puppeteer to Fred Rogers (who would later move back to the States and be better known as Mister Rogers). Ernie Coombs was born in Maine, but he relocated to Toronto in 1963 to work for the local CBC public broadcasting affiliate. He created the character of Mr. Dressup and launched a show in 1967 on which he told stories, pulled costumes out of the Tickle Trunk and put on plays, and interacted with puppet friends Casey and Finnegan (a dog who never spoke). After he retired from the series in 1996, Coombs toured universities and shared behind-the-scenes stories with students while also giving advice on careers in children’s television programming. Some students were a bit surprised to witness Mr. Dressup (gasp!) sipping a beer onstage during his presentation.

3. The Uncle Bobby Show

If you were a kid during the 1960s and '70s, chances are you watched The Uncle Bobby Show (most likely you were home for lunch and just waiting for The Flintstones to come on). Uncle Bobby was Bobby Ash, who was born in Staffordshire, England, in 1924 and began acting on stage at the tender age of five. He emigrated to Canada after reading an ad for a new TV station starting up in Toronto that was looking for talent. The Uncle Bobby Show aired from 1962 to 1979 on CFTO and was also syndicated across Canada. Sadly, Uncle Bobby always remained something of a second-string children's TV host in a market that included The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup, and he had to moonlight as a school bus driver in Scarborough, Ontario, to make ends meet. After he eventually retired from television and public transport, he wrote children’s books until his death from a heart attack in 2007.

4. Chez Hélène

When I was a tot, Chez Hélène was a part of my regular TV viewing, even though I couldn’t understand a word Hélène Baillargeon said. (I used to call the show “Cheese Helen” until my mom finally corrected me.) Baillargeon was a Quebec-born folk singer and entertainer. She started the 15 minute long daily program bearing her name in 1959 as a way to teach French to English-speaking Canadian preschoolers. Luckily, Suzie the Mouse spoke English enough to keep me and other Anglophones tuning in every day.

5. Tales of the Wizard of Oz

This cartoon series was actually one of the first offerings from the studios of Rankin-Bass, and one of the few cel animation shows they ever produced. For the Oz project, R-B teamed up with a Canadian producer named F.R. Crawley and sidestepped copyright issues with the L. Frank Baum estate by giving the main characters names (Socrates the Scarecrow, Rusty the Tin Man, and Dandy the Lion) as well as personalities that differed from those in the book and feature film. Just try and get this theme song out of your head!

6. The New Adventures of Pinocchio

This series was more typical of Rankin-Bass; The New Adventures of Pinocchio utilized the studio’s Animagic stop-motion filming technique. The series was syndicated in the early 1960s and saw little success in the U.S. It turned out to be popular in Canada, however, and the CBC ran it for many years. Five daily episodes per week formed the chapters of one “story,” so Monday through Thursday’s shows always ended in a cliffhanger, with Pinocchio’s dilemma resolved on Friday. The overall plot of the series was the puppet boy’s (along with a cricket who sounded like Cheech Marin with a throat infection) continued search for the Blue Fairy.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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