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The Final Resting Places of 11 Childhood Icons

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Sodahead

The news of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing probably didn’t come as a surprise to many this week, especially not creditors who are owed a total of $18 billion. What does come as a surprise is that the city may sell off some of its art collection to try to stop some of the bleeding—including Howdy Doody. Wait, what? How did Howdy Doody end up in Detroit? We have the answer, in addition to what happened to 10 other props you’ll remember from childhood.

1. Howdy Doody

So if you weren’t already aware, you now know that Howdy Doody (above), the beloved cowboy puppet from the 1950s-era children’s show of the same name, has called the Detroit Institute of Arts home for the last several years. But why? Howdy Doody host Buffalo Bob Smith was from Buffalo, New York (go figure). When he died in 1998, fights erupted between various groups of people who believed they had a claim to the marionette. The Detroit Institute of Arts—which has one of the largest collections of significant puppets in the world—eventually prevailed.

2. Hoggle


Unclaimed Baggage Center

Woe is Hoggle, the curmudgeonly dwarf from Labyrinth. Far from being carefully and lovingly preserved as our friend Howdy Doody was, Hoggle was just someone’s unwanted baggage. Literally. The foam puppet turned up in a crate at the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. The folks there had the puppet restored to its former glory, so Hoggle now presides over the Unclaimed Baggage Museum as its rightful king. Take that, Jareth.

3. Rudolph and Santa

In 2005, a man cleaning out the family attic stumbled upon a couple of little puppets and recognized them from his childhood. And your childhood. And the childhood of anyone who has ever watched television. His aunt, a Rankin-Bass employee at the time Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was made in the early 1960s, took the wood, wool, and wire models home for her kids to play with. By the time the nephew discovered them and took them to Antiques Roadshow in 2005, Rudolph’s iconic nose was gone and Santa appeared to have waxed off both eyebrows and half of his mustache.

The toys have since been purchased by a private buyer and restored; they occasionally make appearances at Comic-Cons and museums across the country.

4. Kermit


Flickr

You can gaze upon the original Kermit the Frog—complete with ping pong ball eyeballs—at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in D.C. The original puppet was made using an old green coat and was part of a show called Sam & Friends starting in 1955. The show, appropriately, was a local Washington D.C. news program.

5. Charlie McCarthy

If Toy Story is an accurate representation of what happens when toy owners aren’t looking, perhaps Kermit hops out of his case to go chat with Edgar Bergen’s sidekick Charlie McCarthy, who also calls the Smithsonian home these days. And if the image of a nearly 60-year-old Muppet coming to life to get up to some shenanigans in an empty museum with a wooden ventriloquist’s dummy gives you nightmares tonight, well, I guess we’ll both have something to discuss with our therapists.

6. Effie Klinker and Mortimer Snerd

Along with another version of Mr. McCarthy, a couple of Edgar Bergen’s other famous dummies live behind glass at the National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago.

7. Shotgun Red

Back when I was but a little shaver, I watched a lot of TNN (The Nashville Network) when my grandma babysat. I didn’t care for the Grand Ole Opry, so much, but I was a big fan of Shotgun Red on Nashville Now. I’m slightly elated to know that Shotgun Red is still “alive” and well, touring with his own variety show and making appearances on TV. 

Here he is back in the day:

8. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood Trolley

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If this model train enthusiast is to be believed, all of the puppets and props, including the trolley that whisked us all to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make Believe, are just sitting in a box somewhere at PBS. Curious as to where the old trolley had ended up, Chris from Duluth emailed PBS several years ago. Their reply:

Chris,
We received the email message you sent through our PBS Neighborhood web site. The Trolley from the Neighborhood program, along with all of the props and set pieces have been careful placed in storage. We have kept everything from the Neighborhood series in case we need it for future projects. We are continuing the work at the nonprofit company that Fred Rogers founded (Family Communications, Inc.) If you'd like to know more about the work of FCI, you can visit our web site at www.fci.org.

We appreciate your interest (and that of the fellow members of your model RR forum) in the Neighborhood Trolley.

9. Lost in Space robot

If you’ve ever hoped to hear “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!” in person, you’ll need to take it up with NASA. After Lost in Space creator Irwin Allen died, his widow donated at least one version of the robot to the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center. There’s another one in the Seattle Science Fiction Museum, and a private collector owns a costume version of the robot that was worn by an actor for shots that required a lot of movement.

10. ALF

We don’t know the exact location of everyone’s favorite cat-eating Melmackian, but as of a few years ago, Paul Fusco, the puppeteer and voice of ALF, assured People magazine that he was safe. “That would be a terrible thing, to tell the fans that he’s in a box somewhere!” Fusco said. Better a box than the Unclaimed Baggage Center, I always say.

11. E.T.


RogerEbert.com

Now, take this with an Elephant Man-sized grain of salt, but it’s said that Michael Jackson purchased one of the original E.T. puppets. It wouldn’t really be a surprising purchase—Jackson very much identified with the adorable little alien, telling Ebony magazine, “Well, look at his story. He’s in a strange place and wants to be accepted—which is a situation that I’ve found myself in many times when traveling from city to city all over the world. He’s most comfortable with children, and I have a great love for kids. He gives love and wants love in return, which is me. And he has that super power which lets him lift off and fly whenever he wants to get away from things on Earth, and I can identify with that.”

Jackson won a Grammy for narrating the E.T. audio book, because of course he did.

Primary image courtesy of Sodahead.

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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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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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