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25 Fun Facts About ALF

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Sure, you know the cat-eating alien hails from the planet Melmac, but there’s plenty you (probably) don’t know about Gordon Shumway and his classic television show.

1. The voice of ALF, Paul Fusco, also operated the ALF puppet—most of the time. When ALF needed to be shown in his full glory, actor Mihaly Meszaros—who stands two feet nine inches tall—stepped into the costume.

2. The show’s finale was crafted as cliffhanger to entice the network to bring the show back for a new season. The ruse didn’t work, and the show was indeed cancelled before it could resolve its ending, though a bunch of loose ends were tied up six years later, with the release of TV movie Project: ALF.

3. Project: ALF is often rejected by ALF fans. They don't consider it "canon." One reason they hated it? None of the original human cast returned.

Matt Evans, YouTube

4. The show was a huge hit in Germany. The city limits sign of the German city Alf was stolen so many times that the city ultimately stocked up a bunch of them, to always have a new one handy.

5. Ever notice that ALF sometimes looked really different? That's because there were two ALF puppets. One was used for all shots that went from the stomach up, while another was only used for full body shots (the same ones that saw Meszaros puppeting from inside the costume).

6. Baby Eric was written into the show when actress Anne Schedeen (Mrs. Tanner) got pregnant in real life.

7. ALF was always mixing up his career path, including a stint writing for a soap opera. The soap opera was called “One World to Hope For.”

8. ALF supposedly had two sisters—a half and a full. The full sister, Augie, showed up in the cartoons, and the half-sister, Dianne, was mentioned on trading cards.

9. ALF got his own set of trading cards—a whole series, issued by Topps!—in the late '80s. A few of the cards were parody sports cards that depicted ALF’s favorite sport, Boulliabaseball.

10. ALF was the first television show to be presented in Dolby Surround Sound.

11. ALF had eight stomachs. Which is probably why he had such a notoriously huge appetite.

GuruFilm, YouTube

12. ALF’s birthday is October 28, 1756.

13. ALF’s home planet of Melmac had a green sky and blue grass. Its sun, however, was purple.

14. The show’s set was built on a platform that was four feet above the ground, so that Fusco could puppet ALF anywhere on the stage. Fusco used a series of trapdoors to puppet ALF around, and they sometimes needed to be reset in the middle of a scene.

15. The ALF set was apparently seething with tension and troubles. The technical demands of such a program were especially wearing on the human cast, many of whom hated playing second banana to an inanimate puppet.

16. A rehearsal puppet was often used, in order to avoid wear and tear on the real ALF puppets. He was called RALF—“Rehearsal Alien Life Form.”

17. ALF’s popularity with children changed the direction of the show. Which is why ALF, who drank a beer in the first episode, didn’t consume any alcohol on screen after the first season.

18. ALF: The Animated Series served as a prequel to the live-action show, in an attempt to capitalize on the series’ popularity. It’s set on Melmac before ALF goes to Earth.

19. Marvel Comics published a fifty-issue run of ALF comics in the late '80s.

20. Paul Fusco is reportedly working on an all-new CGI-live action feature film based on the series. Sony Pictures Animation owns the rights now.

21. ALF appeared on a number of other popular television shows. He popped up on Matlock, Blossom, and Hollywood Squares, among others.

22. In 1988, Burger King ran an ALF promotion that included giving away ALF puppets and cardboard records. ALF himself sang on the records, with songs like “Melmac Rock” and “Take Me, ALF, to the Ballgame.”

23. Every episode of ALF was titled after or alluded to a song, and each title had something to do with the show’s actual content.

24. The series ran 99 episodes, including three one-hour specials. Those specials were split into two, which is why ALF in syndication runs 102 episodes.

25. Melmac was located six parsecs past the Hydra-Centaurus Supercluster. At least until it was blown up by a nuclear bomb.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.