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A Few Facts about 4 More Classic Holiday TV Specials

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How many of these shows do you remember, or maybe still watch every year?

1. The Year without a Santa Claus

This 1974 Rankin-Bass favorite was based on a short story by the same name written by Phyllis McGinley that was published in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1956. The piece received such a positive reaction that it was released in book form the following year. In 1968, Capitol Records hired Boris Karloff (who’d had success with his voice work in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas two years earlier) to narrate the story on an album. The LP featured McGinley’s story on the A-side, and a collection of Christmas songs from Capitol’s library on the B-side.

Academy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner Shirley Booth provided the voice of Mrs. Claus in the special and served as the show’s narrator. Press releases at the time stated that Booth had agreed to the project because of her longtime admiration for McGinley’s work, but in truth Booth was smarting from the recent and abrupt cancellation of her new ABC sitcom, A Touch of Grace. Her return to network TV had been ballyhooed in the press, and its getting axed after just 13 episodes was a major blow. Booth was amused by the fact that even though she sings a duet with Mickey Rooney (Santa Claus) in the special, she had never met the actor in person. She’d recorded her portion of the song in New York, he did his in Chicago, and the producers melded the two parts together.

The stand-out “stars” of The Year Without a Santa Claus were, without question, the Heat Miser and Snow Miser, voiced by George S. Irving and Dick Shawn respectively. Despite a long career as a film actor and stand-up comedian, Shawn might well have been remembered most for his voice work as the frosty Snow Miser had it not been for his most unusual death. Shawn was performing a one-man show at U.C. San Diego in April 1987 and had just launched into a routine about politicians and their clichés and campaign promises. Shortly after uttering the line “If elected, I will not lie down on the job” he fell face down on the stage. It was almost a full five minutes before members of the stage crew realized that this was not part of his act; Shawn had suffered a fatal heart attack onstage.

2. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

If you cried when Bambi was orphaned or when Old Yeller contracted rabies, then avoid Nestor at all costs. There is a scene where Nestor’s mama protects him during a blizzard that puts a complete damper on any feel-goodness that shows up later when the floppy-eared little guy helps a couple find their way to Bethlehem.

Anyway, Nestor started out as a holiday record by Gene Autry, who was hoping to duplicate the success he’d had with “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The record flopped, but Rankin-Bass turned it into one of their Animagic specials. Nestor is a bit of a departure for R-B not only because it features the Nativity scene, but also because the villain isn’t an obvious make-believe monster (like the Abominable Snowman) but scary Roman soldiers.

3. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

This charming special from Jim Henson and his Muppet crew first aired on HBO in 1977, shortly before the Muppets hit the real-big time in their first feature film. The story is somewhat based on O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, with the very poor Otter family (minus Pa, who has gone on to that big river in the sky) wanting to enter a local Christmas talent show. But Ma has to hock Pa’s tool chest in order to buy a dress for the competition, and Emmet has to cut a hole in Ma’s washtub to make an upright bass … Luckily, the up-tempo songs and delightful production design keep the story from drowning in pathos.

Emmet was one of the most ambitious productions Jim Henson’s company had undertaken to date. This was long before CGI was at every animator’s fingertips, so the crew actually constructed a 55-foot-long river that was 10 feet wide across the stage they’d built in a Toronto studio. Emmet’s rowboat was radio-controlled, and some of the Muppets were operated via a brand new contraption Henson’s engineers had devised called a “Waldo.” The Waldo is an electronic telemetric device that the Muppeteer wears like a mitten. Shaped like the character’s head, it allows the wearer to control the puppet’s mouth remotely via radio signals.

4. The Little Drummer Boy

Based on the Katherine Kennicott Davis song by the same name, Rankin-Bass obviously had to flesh out the story to fill up 30 minutes of airtime. So they gave Aaron (the Drummer Boy) a back story: orphaned when his parents were killed by thieves, he was forced to join a circus because his drumming made his animal friends dance. He eventually escapes with his friends—a camel, a sheep and a donkey—and joins up with the Three Wise Men’s caravan to Bethlehem. The sheep is injured along the way, and Aaron asks the newborn baby Jesus to heal him. When the Infant Savior grants his request, appreciative Aaron gives the only gift he has to offer, that of music.

Actress Greer Garson, who’d won an Academy Award for Mrs. Miniver in 1942, narrated this special. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association when it debuted in 1968, so all the bumpers featured “Holiday Wishes from Your Local Gas Company!”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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]