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11 Controversial SNL Moments

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Most Saturday Night Live skits just make people laugh. But these 11 segments made people angry.

1. The mock movie trailer that sent Jesus on a killing spree

If you’re trying to avoid controversy, riffing off one of today’s most controversial movies may be unwise. But when the ballsy writers at SNL came up with this spoof of the famously gory Django Unchained, it seemed clear they were heading in the opposite direction. What could be more controversial than the 2012 slave revenge fantasy? A (D)Jesus revenge fantasy, complete with the freshly risen deity grabbing a gladiator sword and going H.A.M. (Hard As a Messiah) on some Romans. Needless to say, Christian groups such as American Family Association were outraged by the display, deeming it “blasphemy” and demanding that Sears and JCPenney pull their advertising from the show. While the retail giants refused to sever ties with NBC, Sears did eventually pull some of their advertising from online sources of the controversial short. The short offended some Muslims, too.

2. The sketch that had the word “penis” in it ... a lot

In 1988, it was still taboo to directly reference, uh, reproductive organs on TV. But SNL threw caution—and censorship—to the wind with a sketch penned by a young Conan O’Brien, where a group of men at a nude beach casually chat about their genitalia … and nothing else. The sketch, which aired on the October 15, 1988 episode hosted by Matthew Broderick, was originally written earlier that year for the episode hosted by Carl Weathers. For obvious reasons, the sketch was struck down early, only to resurface in early October for the Tom Hanks show. This time, it made it all the way to dress rehearsal before being nixed. Finally, “Nude Beach” made it to air the following week. The sketch, at a run time of just under four minutes, has the word “penis” spoken 17 times and sung 26 times, for a grand total of 43 times. It allegedly garnered 46,000 letters of complaint.

3. The pre-taped segment that made Starbucks a race thing

When Starbucks set out to create the “Starbucks experience” at home with new single-serve Verismo brewers, SNL writers saw a product ripe for the spoofing. While they seemingly set out to poke fun at the far-from-tranquil aspects of a Starbucks trip, the commercial parody drew numerous accusations of racism. The parody starts out innocently enough, with the coffee machine posing as an incompetent barista. But where many took issue is the part where that barista is joined by an equally incompetent, “non-functioning,” hoop-earringed, manager-type machine, “Verquonica.” Both the Verismo and Verquonica speak in stereotypical “black” accents, and both are presented as rude, incompetent, and, frankly, a little dumb. While the parody goes on to poke fun at Starbucks fixtures such as room-temperature milk and untidy counters, the stereotypes present in the Verismo and Verquonica systems left a bad taste in the mouths of many. Twitter erupted with allegations of racism ranging from “Funny concept, unnecessarily racist execution. Bummer,” to “SNLs racist Starbucks Verismo skit in line w their tradition of adding classism to racism in order to get away w laughing at latinos/blacks.”

4. The sketch that made light of domestic violence

In 2009, Tiger Woods rocked the sports world with admissions to multiple affairs during his marriage to former model Elin Nordegren, who allegedly beat him up upon learning of his infidelity. When SNL tried to poke fun at the scandal, they inadvertently made a pretty risky statement about domestic violence—namely, that it’s funny.

In the sketch, we see a press conference where Kenan Thompson’s Tiger admits to more and more transgressions as his wife Elin (played by host Blake Lively) looks on. With each admission, Elin interjects angrily, and we cut back to a more and more injured Tiger. The sketch raised eyebrows for its blasé attitude toward domestic abuse and sexist assertion that domestic violence is okay if inflicted by a female. The sketch may not have attracted such criticism if not for one unfortunate coincidence that drew attention to the matter: that episode’s musical guest was Rihanna, a high-profile victim of domestic abuse.

5. The sketch that told Real People They Deserved to Be Shot

Shortly following the airing of a sketch that mocked “victims” of the 2008 housing crisis, online versions of the sketch inexplicably disappeared. Well, it sort of made sense: in the sketch, Herb Sandler and his wife, Marion, were labeled onscreen as “people who should be shot.” The rub? Herb and Marion—former owners of Oakland’s Golden West Financial—are real people, a fact that slipped past Lorne Michaels when the sketch was approved for air.

As Michaels later explained, “I, in a state of complete ignorance, thought they were characters in a piece. I did not know they were real, up until somebody called me about it on Monday…When I spoke to them, I can assure you this: They are very, very real.” After taking the blame for the slip-up, Michaels pulled all online versions of the sketch, and supposedly replaced it with an edited version. The “edited version,” however, is still nowhere to be found.

6. The sketch that mocked Tim Tebow (and maybe also Jesus)

Okay, so maybe putting Jesus in a sketch is generally just a bad idea. A 2011 episode saw yet another Jesus-centered sketch that offended Christian groups around the country. Riding the wave of popularity surrounding the devout Christian football star Tim Tebow, SNL poked fun at his regular on-field displays of his faith. In the locker room, Tebow is confronted by Jesus himself, who suggests that studying the playbook might beat out Bible study in terms of game preparation. Later, Jesus adds that, while Tebow may pray to him, the Lord himself prays to Broncos kicker Matt Prater.

What began as a playful jab at those who consider a last-second touchdown divine intervention soon was blasted by televangelist Pat Robertson as “anti-Christian bigotry that is just disgusting.” USA Today political commentator Bob Beckel referred to the sketch as “despicable.” Neither Tebow nor SNL ever responded to the controversy, but many other Christians have gone out of their way to defend the sketch. One YouTube user, a self-proclaimed Christian, posted the video with a special disclaimer intended to mollify more quick-tempered viewers: “I myself am a Christian Catholic…They are not making fun of Jesus! This is a Tim Tebow caricature, they’re making fun of Tebow…”

7. The sketch that put Black Comedians in Drag

Male actors performing in drag is a convention that dates back to Shakespeare, but in 2006, comedian Dave Chappelle asserted that the comedy world especially loves for black men to perform in drag, as a means of emasculating them. Chappelle swore that he’d never stoop to performing in drag, and since then, black comedians who gender-bend for laughs are often viewed as “sellouts” within the African American community.

That’s why another black comedian, Kevin Hart, faced an onslaught of criticism following his 2013 hosting gig, in which he donned a dress and wig to play the part of Quvenzhane Wallis. Following the episode’s airing, Twitter was afire with accusations of Hart “selling out,” but the comedian vehemently defended his decision—emphasizing that it was, after all, his decision. He tweeted, “I WORE A DRESS ON SNL because I THOUGHT IT WAS FUNNY!!! I made that decision…NOBODY MADE IT FOR ME…I AM MY OWN BOSS!!!”

8. The sketch that made fun of the blind

Ever since its very beginnings, the mocking of political figures has been a cornerstone of SNL. It’s not uncommon for said politicians to take offense, but in 2008, a few misfired jokes had people upset at a national level. In an edition of Weekend Update, then-governor of New York David Paterson was portrayed as clumsy and bumbling, constantly bumping into things and squinting at the camera—which would’ve passed off innocently enough if it weren’t for the fact that Paterson is actually severely visually impaired. This apparent insensitivity toward the physically handicapped upset not only Paterson himself, but handicapped organizations all over the country. “I can take a joke,” said Paterson. “But only 37 percent of disabled people are working and I’m afraid that that kind of third-grade humor certainly adds to this atmosphere. Let’s just say I don’t think it helped.” The sketch was criticized by the National Federation of the Blind, who called it “absolutely wrong.”

9. The fake commercial that Defamed Thailand

Rosetta Stone is a well-known, intensive program for learning foreign languages. It promises quick, comprehensive language skills to be used for endless applications—including those that are creepy and unsavory, as SNL kindly pointed out in a faux-commercial for the product earlier this year. What begins as a normal commercial boasting wholesome uses for foreign language studies (communicating with old-country grandma, for instance) quickly turns weird with the inclusion of some middle-aged men who really want to learn Thai, but suspiciously refuse to say why (“I’m learning Thai so I can go to Thailand for a thing.” “I’m learning German, so I can pretend that I’m German while in Thailand.”). Undoubtedly drawing from the country’s notorious sex trade industry, the faux-mercial was met with outrage by Thailand’s Ministry of Culture, Sonthaya Khunploem, who claimed that the spoof was “tarnishing Thailand’s image” and asked for online versions of the clip to be removed. However, many versions are still online.

10. The moment when Samuel L. Jackson forgot to pretend to swear

Samuel L. Jackson may not have the cleanest mouth in Hollywood, but a 2012 episode of SNL may have marked one of the first times the actor has shown remorse for his foul language. Jackson appeared as a guest star for the fake talk show “What Up With That?”, where Kenan Thompson plays a host who constantly uses dance breaks to interrupt his guests—well, he’s supposed to, anyway. At one point, the sketch called for Jackson to almost swear—saying something like “fff”—but he’s not interrupted in time, and the whole word seemingly slips out. A frustrated Jackson then utters "bullsh**.” To this day, Jackson swears (pun not intended) that he only said “fuh”, not the entire profanity, and that the incident was Thompson’s fault, adding, “I’m used to working with professionals that know their lines. Even the ones that are written on cue cards in front of you.”  It’s still unclear, though, whether or not the second profanity was also in the script. Though the incident has been largely forgotten, that episode marked Samuel L. Jackson’s ascension into the few, proud ranks of SNL swearers.

11. And, of course, the musical moment when Sinead O’Connor tore up a photo of the Pope

Just over 20 years ago, Irish songstress Sinead O’Connor committed one of the most controversial acts to ever occur on SNL. During the tail end of a cover performance of Bob Marley’s “War,” O’Connor held up a picture of Pope John Paul II  while singing the word “evil,” then proclaimed “Fight the real enemy!” while tearing the picture into pieces. O’Connor, who reportedly grew up in an abusive, Catholic household, was protesting the Vatican’s handling of the child abuse controversy within the Catholic church. Not surprisingly, the bold act didn’t go over so well with television audiences; the next two days, NBC received over 900 calls, with all but seven bearing complaints toward O’Connor’s spectacle. Many entertainers even took public stands against her. On the following week’s show, host Joe Pesci held up the picture of the Pope which, he explained, he’d taped back together. He proceeded to tear up a picture of the singer, instead. The stunt’s notoriety has stood the test of time over two decades later, most recently being lampooned during 30 Rock’s second live show in 2012, when the attention-seeking page Hazel Wazzername stormed the stage and ripped up a picture of O’Connor.

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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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