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20 Things You Might Not Know About Freaks and Geeks

1. John Francis Daley (Sam Weir) was the only cast member playing a character his or her age.

Daley was 14 in real life and on TV. Linda Cardellini, then 24, played his 16-year-old sister Lindsay. Samm Levine (Neal Schweiber), Martin Starr (Bill Haverchuck), and Seth Rogen (Ken Miller) were all 17. Jason Segel (Nick Andopolis) was 19. Busy Phillips (Kim Kelly) and James Franco (Daniel Desario) were 20 and 21, respectively.

2. The camera crew was under strict orders to make scenes look drab.

Freaks and Geeks takes place in fictional Chippewa, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The crew used green and gray-tinted lights to achieve so-called Midwestern colors on the show's set in California. They also avoided shooting outdoors whenever possible.

3. Most of the show's budget was spent on music

The show's 18 episodes featured snippets of more than 120 songs, including Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" in the opening credits. It set the tone for the show, but it wasn't cheap. Clearing songs by Van Halen, KISS, and The Who—just to name a few—required a lot of paperwork and ate up much of the show's budget . It also later delayed the DVD release. Fox removed most of the music when it picked up Freaks and Geeks re-runs to avoid paying extra fees.

One song that got away: Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." When producers couldn't get the licensing rights for episode 15, they replaced it with Dean Martin's "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You."

4. Executive producer Judd Apatow might not have worked on Freaks and Geeks at all.

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He took the job after Fox didn't pick up his pilot Sick in the Head, a sitcom about a rookie psychiatrist's first days working the psych ward. David Krumholtz was cast as the lead, and a pre-SNL Amy Poehler played one of his suicidal patients.

5. Creator Paul Feig started his career as an actor.

He and Apatow met on the L.A. comedy circuit in the mid-1980s and worked together on the set of the 1995 film comedy Heavy Weights, which Apatow wrote with Steven Brill. TGIF fans might remember Feig as Eugene Pool, Sabrina's biology teacher on the first season of ABC-TV's Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

6. Feig's inspiration for the show was his own life—and a 14-part West German TV miniseries called Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The 1980 miniseries is also about an outcast—a man trying to make a new life for himself after accidentally killing his lover and serving four years in prison. It's based on the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin.

7. Judd Apatow hired 24-year-old Jake Kasdan to direct the pilot without ever seeing his work.

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Kasdan had written and directed just one movie, the detective flick Zero Effect. Apatow was aware of his work because the two men shared an agent. He hired Kasdan on the agent's advice and watched the movie the next day. Fortunately, things worked out.

Kasdan has since found steady work as an executive producer on New Girl and directing films like Orange County and Bad Teacher.

8. Everything on the show actually happened to Feig or one of the show's writers.

To jump-start the writing process, Feig had writers fill out questionnaires about their own experiences in high school. Questions included: "What was the best thing that happened to you in high school? What’s the most humiliating thing that happened to you in high school? What’s the first sexual thing you ever did?” The answers were used to create the show.

9. Well, except for episode 17, "The Little Things." That was inspired by The Howard Stern Show.

Spoiler alert! Neither Feig nor any of the writers had ever dated someone with ambiguous genitalia like Ken (Seth Rogen) did in episode 17. Instead, Judd Apatow got the idea while listening to Howard Stern. At this point, everyone was pretty sure Freaks and Geeks wouldn't be renewed. Apatow later told Vanity Fair, "In a way, it was a 'F**** you' to NBC, like 'Now we’re going to get really ambitious and aggressive with storylines that you would never approve if the show had a chance of surviving.'"

10. Timing—in this case, bad timing—was everything.

Freaks and Geeks premiered on September 25, 1999 in one of NBC's deadliest time slots—Saturdays at 8 p.m. To make things worse, it wasn't aired continuously. The show was taken off air during the World Series in October, and later put in a new time slot against ABC's then-red-hot Who Want to Be a Millionaire. Reviews were great, but Freaks and Geeks couldn't keep an audience.

The producers created a website for the show, hoping that it would keep fans engaged and aware of upcoming episodes. The bigwigs at NBC refused to share the URL on ads, because they didn't want to promote Internet use over watching TV.

11. The show's finale was written and filmed in the middle of the season.

NBC originally ordered 13 episodes of Freaks and Geeks. With the threat of cancellation looming, Feig wrote and directed the finale, "Discos and Dragons," so that the show could end on a strong note. Then NBC ordered five more episodes, so that pushed the finale forward a few weeks. Three of these episodes never aired until Fox syndicated the show.

12. Freaks and Geeks was a critical darling, but won only one Emmy, for Outstanding Casting in a Comedy Series.

Casting is one of the Creative Arts Emmy categories awarded in a ceremony held separately from all the acting awards. Paul Feig was also nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series (both in 2000 for the series pilot and in 2001 for the finale), but he came up short both times.

13. Speaking of casting, here are a few ways the show could have been very different.

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Jesse Eisenberg (later of The Social Network) was nearly cast as Sam Weir. Busy Phillips (Kim Kelly) originally auditioned for the role of Lindsay Weir. A few other almosts: Lizzy Caplan of Masters of Sex auditioned for the roles of Kim Kelly and Lindsay; Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under also auditioned for Lindsay; and Shia LaBeouf tried out for the part of Neal Schweiber.

NBC pressured the show's producers to stunt-cast celebrities in small roles to attract viewers. Britney Spears was one suggestion. They refused.

14. Samm Levine's (Neal Schweiber) William Shatner impersonation helped him get the part.

But not because it was good. Judd Apatow thought it was hilariously bad—exactly like something a geek would do.

15. The cast was encouraged to pursue their own writing.

During some downtime on-set, Feig and Apatow showed James Franco how they brainstormed and wrote scenes. Jason Segel and Seth Rogen improvised new jokes when they rehearsed on weekends. Instead of taking GED correspondence courses while filming, Rogen started writing his first screenplay, Superbad.

16. The cast and crew stuck with the theme for the series wrap party.

Instead of your typical Hollywood soiree, the party's theme was a high school prom in 1980. Everyone wore late '70s formal wear, except for Busy Phillips, who wore the dress she wore to her real junior prom. Paul Feig even had special class rings made for himself and Judd Apatow.

17. Paul Feig brainstormed some of the story lines for season two.

What might we have seen if Freaks and Geeks hadn't been cancelled? Feig imagined something bad happening to Lindsay while she was following The Grateful Dead, ultimately destroying her parents' trust. Sam was going to find his voice as a drama geek, while Neal joined the school chorus. (Who's geekier now?) Bill would become a late-blooming jock under the care of Coach Fredricks, who might have become his stepfather.

The freaks had more serious plot twists ahead. Daniel would end up in jail, Nick would probably join the Army after graduation, and Ken's fate was never quite clear.

There's still some hope that Freaks and Geeks might come back someday, albeit with a new cast. Feig has said he'd love to see a musical adaptation.

18. Feig later wrote two memoirs.

The book Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, published in 2002, revisits the teen angst that made Freaks and Geeks so funny and relatable. Three years later, Feig recalled his painfully chaste early adulthood in Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin.

19. After Freaks and Geeks, Feig and Apatow went their separate ways in the world of TV.

Apatow became the executive producer and creator of the Fox sitcom Undeclared, which was also cancelled after one season. He hired Seth Rogen as a staff writer and put other Freaks and Geeks cast members in recurring roles. In 2001, Apatow wrote another pilot about struggling actors for Fox, called North Hollywood. Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Kevin Hart all had roles. In a case of life imitating art, the show wasn't picked up. Soon after, he became a Hollywood heavyweight with box-office hits like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

Feig directed one episode of Undeclared. After that, he worked as the co-executive producer of The Office and Nurse Jackie and directed multiple episodes of Arrested Development and Weeds.

20. Feig and Apatow didn't team up again until Bridesmaids in 2011.

It became the highest grossing R-rated female comedy ever, not to mention the highest grossing film of Apatow's very successful career. Now the two are said to be working on another romantic comedy to be written and directed by Feig.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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