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10 Controversies Caused by Nicktoons

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These off-the-wall cartoons have a long history of rubbing some viewers the wrong way, sometimes for reasons you'd never expect.

1. The Bleep Heard ‘Round The World

Be careful what you wish for. Several parents complained when, in a 1998 episode of The Angry Beavers, series protagonist Norbert hollered “Oh shut up, Dag!” How did the network respond? By bleeping out the word “shut.” The situation immediately went from bad to worse, as many viewers now assumed that the yellow rodent was actually cussing. Nick later changed the line to “Shush up, stupid!” 

2. Fox News Weighs in on Bikini Bottom Climate “Bias”

“SpongeBob is talking a lot about global warming, and he’s only looking at it from one point of view,” bemoaned Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson. Her scorn was prompted by a special episode of Spongebob Squarepants called “Endless Summer,” which was screened during an event run by the U.S. Department of Education in 2011. The offending clip depicts SpongeBob and Mister Krabs deliberately raising regional temperatures by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to create demand for their swimming pool. 

3. Blue’s Clues Host Becomes Urban Legend Fodder

Take note, internet: This myth needs to die! Steve Burns voluntarily left his 5-year hosting stint on the popular Nick Jr. show Blue’s Clues. He was not, as many erroneously believe, fired after supposedly being jailed for heroin possession. Sadly, the entertainer (who now works as an indie rock artist) was also forced to fend off malicious rumors which claimed that he’d actually died from overdosing on the drug. 

4. Rugrats Accused of Anti-Semitism

The Rugrats daily newspaper comic landed Nickelodeon in hot water on September 20, 1998, when a particular strip featured Tommy Pickles naively pondering the meaning of a traditional Hebrew mourning hymn while attending Synagogue with his grandfather. Outraged readers proceed to shame the company for belittling such a solemn prayer. “The caricature of Grandpa Boris is reminiscent of stereotypical Nazi-era depictions of Jews,” Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League said. Nickelodeon president Herb Scannell ultimately responded to mounting criticism by promising that Boris would “no longer be used in the comic strip series.” 

5. Nick Pulls Explicit Rocko Episode

Rocko’s Modern Life slipped more than its fair share of adult jokes past unsuspecting TV censors, but when the title character’s gravel-voiced neighbor Bev Bighead declared that she needed “a little attention from a man once in a while” and began seductively pursuing him to comedic effect in an episode called “Leap Frogs," executives felt the show had finally gone too far. “Leap Frogs” was swiftly pulled from the lineup.

6. Convicted Killer Drops Invader Zim Reference

It didn’t take long for this alien invasion show to come under fire for its occasionally morbid sense of humor—a situation that certainly wasn’t helped when notorious teenage murderer Scott Dyleski was cited as having “joked about body parts" after watching an episode of Invader Zim called "Dark Harvest."   

7. SpongeBob Sparks Labor Debate

A particularly topical episode called “You’re Fired, SpongeBob!” thrust the absorbent fry-cook into the center of yet another politicized media controversy last November. Laid off from his job by Mister Krabs’ discovery that he could save “one whole nickel” by letting him go, SpongeBob briefly entertains a beggarly lifestyle before telling Patrick the starfish, “Unemployment may be fun for you, but I need to get a job.” This innocuous-sounding remark managed to trigger passionate responses from an array of pundits throughout the mainstream media, though Nickelodeon itself has refused to issue an official statement on the matter.

8. Ren & Stimpy Episode Gets Banned for Excessive Violence


Ren & Stimpy Wikia

Crass doesn’t even begin to describe the manic vulgarity of The Ren & Stimpy Show. Plots frequently revolved around such topics as boogers, rubber nipples, and the general absence of pants. But when Ren the Chihuahua began bludgeoning his owner with an oar in “Man’s Best Friend,” the episode was booted off the air and didn’t resurface for over a decade.

9. SpongeBob Accused of Peddling Gay Propaganda

Perhaps the most scathing attack on this popular Nicktoon came in 2012, when the Ukrainian National Expert Commission for Protecting Public Morality argued that SpongeBob not only “promoted homosexuality” but was part of a “large-scale experiment” designed to transform the nation’s youth into “criminals and perverts.”

10. “Tweenage” Dora Enrages Parents

Dora the Explorer’s beloved television show has been a Nick Jr. staple since 2000, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a toddler who hasn’t heard of her bilingual adventures. But when Nickelodeon and Mattel teamed up to produce a line of updated “pre-teen” Dora dolls, psychologists Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown claimed that the new models unjustly “sexualized” the character and called upon concerned parents to take arms against the alterations, leading to a public relations nightmare for both companies.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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