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10 Characters Made Famous on TV Variety Shows

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In the 1950s, '60s and '70s—back when there were only three major networks (not counting PBS)—variety shows were a staple of television programming. And, as corny as the singing and dancing might seem now, some of those shows launched characters that transcended popular culture, just as Bart Simpson and the Sex and the City ladies have in more recent years. See how many of these characters you remember, or maybe your parents have mentioned…

1. The Flip Wilson Show - Flip Wilson as Geraldine

Flip Wilson’s famous female alter-ego on The Flip Wilson Show, Geraldine, was the obvious inspiration for other outrageous drag characters that popped up decades later, such as Martin Lawrence’s Shanaynay and Jamie Foxx’s Ugly Wanda. The sassy Geraldine had a boyfriend named Killer, with whom she’d rendezvous at a club “in a booth in the back in the corner in the dark.” Her catchphrases, “What you see is what you get!” and “The Devil made me do it!” were on as many t-shirts in the early 1970s as Hello Kitty is today.

2. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour – Cher as Laverne

One of the weekly highlights of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was seeing impeccably coiffed Cher slink onstage in a fabulous (and revealing) Bob Mackie gown. So the usually glamorous Cher was truly playing against type when she dressed in a Peg Bundy-style leopard print jumpsuit and cat’s-eye glasses to play the gum-chomping laundry room gossip Laverne Lashinski. Man-hungry Laverne was such an audience favorite that Cher revived the character in the 1980s for her Las Vegas act, performing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” natch.

3. The Carol Burnett Show – Mrs. Wiggins

The red-headed comedienne created many memorable characters during the long run of The Carol Burnett Show, and one of those was the inept secretary Mrs. Wiggins. During that less politically correct era, her name became an unfortunate synonym for any female clerical worker that was well-endowed in the caboose region.

4. The Carol Burnett Show – Eunice and Family

The syndicated sitcom Mama’s Family did not do justice to its source material. The original "Family" sketches on The Carol Burnett Show were not hackneyed slapstick; the comedy was based more on the reality of the dysfunctional family dynamic. It seemed that the only time Mama spoke was to criticize her daughter, Eunice, or her husband Ed, or to talk about anything else that irritated her. Eunice dreamed of a better life, but did nothing to improve herself. Ed was the proud owner of a hardware store and didn’t hesitate to fight back when Eunice complained about him, his nowhere job, and their nothing house. His best friend was Mickey Hart, loyal but not-too-bright hardware store employee. When gathered under one roof for any occasion, the family’s tempers could flare from zero to 212 degrees in an instant, not unlike what happens in many average American families when they get together for a friendly game…

5. Laugh-in – Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was Saturday Night Live on speed. Each 60-minute show was filled with rapid-fire gags and sketches, and it was only natural that some recurring bits would make for “breakout” characters. For example, Lily Tomlin’s 5-year-old Edith Ann espoused child-like philosophy from an oversized rocking chair. She was also responsible for adding “…and that’s the truth! Pbbbbt!” to the lexicon.

6. Laugh-In – Lily Tomlin as Ernestine

Another Tomlin character was the busybody telephone operator, Ernestine. Her “one ringey-dingey, two ringey-dingey” schtick became so popular that the Bell System used her to promote their services for a time.

7. Laugh-In - Arte Johnson as Wolfgang

Arte Johnson dressed in a German soldier’s uniform, peeked through shrubbery, and said “Verrry eeenterrresting.” For some reason this character and catch phrase caught on like (very annoying) wildfire.

8. The Steve Allen Show - Bill Dana as José Jiménez

Bill Dana created the Mexican-American character of José Jiménez for The Steve Allen Show. Just like Fonzie and Kramer, the character became an audience favorite, greeted with deafening applause as soon as he mumbled “My name José Jiménez…” One skit, in which José’s describes one of his many jobs—astronaut—became so huge a hit that the Mercury crew appointed him an honorary astronaut. In 1970, Dana officially “buried” his most famous character at a Mexican-American cultural pride festival.

9. The Red Skelton Hour – Red Skelton as Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid

One of Red Skelton’s many memorable characters was Junior, the mischievous youngster who was always getting into trouble despite knowing the consequences in advance. “If I dood it,” Junior would muse in his child-like dialect, “I get a whippin’…..” He’d consider the misdeed and the punishment for the briefest of seconds and then with a grin would announce: “I dood it!”

10. The Red Skelton Hour – Red Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader

Red Skelton’s father had once worked as a clown with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, and it was his dad’s makeup that Red used to create his Freddie the Freeloader character. Freddie was a hobo who made his home in the city dump, although sometimes he was seen napping on a park bench using a newspaper as a blanket.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]