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11 Popples From Your Childhood

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Reminiscing about the classic cartoons from the heyday of Saturday morning television hasn’t lost its luster even two decades on, and the ongoing revival of such popular properties as My Little Pony, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles means that being a child of the '80s is still totally rad, bro. But even amidst the seemingly never-ending parade of '80s paraphernalia, some properties have been forgotten—like the transformative charms of the Popples.

Stars of a short-lived '80s cartoon, the Popples were a toy first—a toy that’s basically just a stuffed bear with a long tail that’s able to roll itself up into a ball thanks to a pouch on their backs that also doubles as a portal into an extradimensional void known as “hammerspace.” Brilliant, weird, and totally cute. While the Popple brand eventually expanded to include Babies (they had rattles in their tails), tiny Pufflings (who communicated via squeaking only), and Sports Popples (which ingenuously turned into balls modeled after the sport they repped), the original Popples remain the most iconic and the most adorably '80s of the fuzzy group.

1. PC (Pretty Cool) Popple

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One of the de facto leaders of the Popples, the surprisingly sensible PC still lived up to his name in just about every way possible. A larger Popple, his color combo (blue and pink with contrasting orange and yellow ears) was one of the most classic Popple looks, and while we’re not entirely sure, his colorful zing probably had a little something to do with his magic touch—PC could actually make flowers bloom with a magic finger snap. Maybe that’s why he was something of a ladies’ man (you read that right).

2. Party Popple

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If PC was the cool-headed portion of the Popple leadership, Party was the hot-headed half. Prone to, well, partying, Party would routinely pull confetti and party hats out of her pouch and try to get everyone else to get down. Dazzling in both size (like PC, she was a large Popple) and color (her pink and white combo scream “lady!”), Party was a ball of fun—even when she was dueling with Prize for PC’s affection (drama).

3. Pancake Popple

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The sweetest of all the Popples (and especially of the large-sized ones—she was the final member of the trio), Pancake was the Popple you turned to when you were feeling down. She’d tickle you with her tail, say the right things to pep you up, and soothe you with her unique green tummy.

4. Puzzle Popple

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While you’d be tempted to think that all Popples were super-silly (again, they are oddly-colored bear things that fold into balls), Puzzle took the cake when it came to jokes, pranks, and all-around goofiness. But the medium-sized Popple contained multitudes—he also loved to read and was an accomplished swimmer. Don’t ever try to pigeonhole Popples, pal.

5. Prize Popple

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The third piece of the PC-Party love triangle, medium-sized Prize was the vainest of all the fuzzballs (that bright blue tummy was something to be admired, admittedly). Often found looking in a mirror, speaking in a Marilyn Monroe-styled voice, and dreaming about a career in film, Prize was definitely the most look-obsessed Popple in the bunch, but she also loved telling jokes and fun stories.

6. Puffball Popple

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Saddled with snowy white fur she was obsessed with keeping clean, it’s no wonder that Puffball developed a talent that allowed her to stay still for long periods of time. The last of the medium-sized trio, Puffball was—get this—a skilled ventriloquist.

7. Pretty Bit Popple

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One of the tiniest of the original Popples, Pretty Bit was also quite pretty and just plain bitsy (just look at her tiny little mismatched ears!). Shy but loyal, the very polite and poetry-loving Popple often amused her pals by speaking in rhyme.

8. Potato Chip Popple

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You’ll never guess what Potato Chip Popple was known for. Imitating sounds just like Police Academy’s Michael Winslow! Okay, fine, Potato Chip Popple was best known for her big appetite for all kinds of snacks (all the more impressive, given her small size), but she also demonstrated some nifty sound effects skills, presumably when her little mouth wasn’t crammed with yummy snacks.

9. Putter Popple

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A trickster like Puzzle, Putter Popple was the most hyperactive of the group, frequently zinging about on his quest to make more (often somewhat ill-fated) inventions. The little green guy was the only boy in the small Popple group, but he didn’t let Potato Chip or Pretty Bit take center stage—he ended up appearing in more episodes than those two put together.

10. Punkity Popple

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While the original nine Popples belonged to cute kiddos Bonnie and Billy Wagner (who thought they were the only ones with such amazing toys), both the Wagners and their Popple pack learned the truth when Mike and Penny moved into the neighborhood, toting their own Popples. That crew included a punk rock duo—this was the '80s, people—of which Punkity Popple was the male half. A kitted out medium-sized Popple, Punkity sported both an earring and a lightning bolt on his pink tummy.

11. Punkster Popple

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The lady side of the punk rock Popple duo, Punkster was medium-sized just like Punkity, and her look was punctuated with a Cyndi Lauper-inspired hairdo and a star on her tummy. Punkity also played the tambourine, which is about as punk rock Popple as it gets.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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