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13 Sesame Street Characters Making a Difference in the World

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Sesame Street is all about teaching important life lessons to kids. But some of our favorite Muppets on the show have stepped up to deal with major social issues. Here's a collection of Muppets who taught kids about the issues facing our world today.

1. Cookie Monster - Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

2. Captain Vegetable - Eating Vegetables

While Cookie Monster likes tolerates fruit, Sesame Street devotes an entire character to vegetables—the superhero Captain Vegetable. Based "somewhere in New Jersey," Captain Vegetable was first voiced by Jim Henson (!) in this 1982 song promoting healthy eating:

In 2002, the Captain Vegetable superhero franchise was rebooted, now starring John Leguizamo as a live-action Captain Vegetable, complete with green cape and a bandolier of veggies!

3. Kami - Living With HIV

Takalani Sesame is the South African version of Sesame Street. It features Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet. The name Kami comes from the Tswana word for "acceptance," and Kami has become a global figure in HIV awareness campaigns. Kami emphasizes that it's possible to live with HIV, and those who don't suffer from HIV should be accepting (and unafraid) of those who do. She has made appearances with Oprah Winfrey, Laura Bush, Desmond Tutu, and Whoopi Goldberg. Oh yeah, and she shared a hug with Bill Clinton in this adorable UNICEF video:

For more on Kami, check out her Muppet Wiki page, which includes a photo of the time she smooched Whoopi Goldberg at the U.N.!

4. Big Bird - Dealing With Death

Big Bird has had a hand (and a wing) in lots of social issues on Sesame Street, but the most touching was his segment on dealing with death, after the death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, in 1982. On the show, Mr. Hooper's death taught Big Bird an important lesson. Have a hanky ready:

The episode dealing with Mr. Hooper's death was shown almost a year after Lee's death. It aired on Thanksgiving, 1983, as producers expected many adults would be around over the holiday to help kids process the loss. The episode was eventually turned into a book called I'll Miss You, Mr. Hooper.

5. Lily - Food Insecurity

Lily is a "food insecure" Muppet, who sometimes goes hungry because of her family's financial situation. She first appeared in 2011 on a Sesame Street episode entitled "Growing Hope Against Hunger." Lily is the first character on the show to suffer from food insecurity, and highlights solutions to the problem, such as school lunch programs and food pantries. Here's a highlight reel from Lily's first episode:

6. Pino - Bullying

Pino learns what it means to be a bully (and how to share) in the song "Don't Be a Bully," a take-off on the classic song "Wooly Bully."

Sesame Street also tackled the bullying issue with a special episode featuring Big Bird, among others. Here's Big Bird on CNN talking about the issue:

(Trivia note: the American Pino, a brownish monster, shouldn't be confused with Pino the big blue bird, from Sesamstraat, the Dutch version of Sesame Street.)

7. Grover - Cultural Differences

Global Grover travels the world, learning about different cultures. Here are a few of his greatest hits!

In Nicaragua, Grover tells us about a boy who makes mud bricks. "It is I, your furry blue globe-trotting monster!"

Here he is explaining how kids get to school in various places around the world:

And here he is in Bangladesh, in a slightly squished video:

8. Zobi - Malaria

Zobi appears on the Nigerian version of Sesame Street, teaching kids about malaria. In one sketch, he becomes entangled in a mosquito-protection bed net. He also has a (non-malaria-related) obsession with yams. Here's Zobi, with Kami, in a teacher training video:

9. Ronnie Trash - Recycling

Ronnie Trash (inspired by Johnny Cash) delivers a pro-recycling message in this medley of "I Walk The Line" and "Ring of Fire," rewritten to deal with issues of trash:

Indeed, Johnny Cash himself was on Sesame Street several times. (Check out the full list at the Muppet Wiki!)

10. Aristotle - Blindness

Aristotle is a blind Muppet. In this clip, Aristotle teaches Big Bird about reading in Braille:

11. Alex - Parental Incarceration

In June, Sesame Street introduced Alex, a Muppet whose father is in prison. Alex is there to reach out to the estimated 2.7 million U.S. kids with a parent who's incarcerated. Here's a clip:

12. Kermit the Frog - Environmentalism

Although we usually think about Kermit the Frog as being a Muppet Show Muppet, he was an original Muppet character on Sesame Street. He was named UNICEF Spokesfrog in 1980 after Jim Henson began working with the United Nations Children's Fund, and headed up a Halloween drive that year. (Check out an amazing photo of Henson, Kermit, kids, and those famous 1980s UNICEF collection boxes.) Kermit was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters from Southampton College, New York, where he gave a commencement speech emphasizing environmentalism.

Kermit also participated in a promotional video, along with the Prince of Wales, Robin Williams, Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, the Dalai Lama, and others, for The Prince's Rainforests Project. (If you just want the Kermit content, he shows up at the end.)

13. Snuffleupagus - Divorce

Snuffy and the mysterious Mount Snuffleupagus. Image via YouTube / higman12.

A bit of bonus trivia! Sesame Street producers actually shot an entire episode in which Snuffy's parents got divorced. Unfortunately, the results were deemed too grim, and the episode never aired. Here's a quote from cast member Bob McGrath, via The Muppet Wiki:

... They wrote a whole show and taped it, and it was just devastating for test groups of kids. So they just threw the whole thing in the garbage and never tried it again. It was just too difficult a concept for a 3-year-old.

The Muppet Wiki page about the Snuffy divorce is amazing. While the Snuffy episode remains in the vault, there is at least one oblique mention of divorce on Sesame Street—in Jim Henson's last "News Flash" performance as Kermit on Sesame Street, Kermit interviews a bird whose parents now live in separate trees.

To address the divorce issue, the creators of Sesame Street made Abby Cadabby, a character introduced in 2006, the daughter of divorced parents. She wasn't built specifically to teach about divorce, the way Alex is built specifically to teach about incarceration; instead, divorce is just a part of her life. In 2012, Sesame Street created a whole resource kit to help teach kids about divorce. Abby Cadabby features prominently in the kit. Here’s a video from it:

This list just scratches the surface of the issues Sesame Street tackles. For even more, check out the Sesame Workshop Initiatives page.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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