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5 Interesting Stories That Involve Pat Sajak

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Arthur Chu captured national attention for becoming an 11-time Jeopardy! champion in March 2014 and is now shamelessly extending his presence in the national spotlight by all available means.

The most common question people ask me when they learn that I was on Jeopardy! for twelve episodes is, “What is Alex Trebek really like?”

They’re usually disappointed that I’m unable to give much insight into the man’s character, since I only interacted with him for a total of 240 minutes. Besides, I spent most of that time thinking about how much money I could win (while enraging some fans in the process).

As fascinating and enigmatic a mystery as Alex Trebek is—Why did he shave off his iconic mustache in 2001? What’s the deal with all those little hints he drops to his badass hockey-playing past? Is he officially the world’s most successful Canadian?—I must say that, for drama and excitement, you should be looking to Jeopardy!’s companion show, Wheel of Fortune.

Yes, Wheel of Fortune is looked down upon by the brainiac set, but the show has an anarchic, free-wheeling style that Jeopardy! can't match. Jeopardy! looks the same from week to week, whereas Wheel of Fortune keeps you on your toes (you'll never see "Cincinnati Week" or a Wild Card wedge on Jeopardy!).

But most interesting of all is the man behind the Wheel, Mr. Patrick Leonard “Pat” Sajak. Most of America knows him as the blandly genial guy who congratulates you for winning a car. But he’s had a long and colorful life in showbiz, one that rivals the legends people tell about Alex Trebek. I’m here to give you just a few of the highlights.

1. Pat Sajak Once Cut Off President Nixon’s Radio Broadcast to the Troops in Vietnam

As you may know if you’ve ever watched one of Wheel’s “Honoring Our Veterans” weeks, Pat Sajak is a Vietnam War veteran. Not just that—Pat Sajak got an early start to his broadcasting career as a DJ for Armed Forces Radio in 1968, much like Robin Williams’ character in Good Morning, Vietnam. (He describes his experience in an interview here.)

While his experience wasn't quite as exciting as what happened to Adrian Cronauer, the real-life military DJ whose experiences inspired the film, Sajak did, in fact, get to yell the famous phrase, “Goooood morning, Vietnam!” while hosting the “Dawnbusters” early-AM show.

In 1969, when President Richard Nixon was giving his Christmas address to the nation, Pat Sajak thought he heard him finish the speech and flipped the switch to start playing “1, 2, 3, Red Light” by The 1910 Fruitgum Company. As the music played, Sajak belatedly realized that Nixon hadn't finished his speech, but was actually at the portion of the address where he was giving his Christmas greetings directly to the troops.

Faced with the dilemma of whether to admit he messed up or ignore it, Sajak took the latter option. President Nixon unknowingly delivered Christmas greetings to only one of the troops in Vietnam: Sajak himself—a fact for which Sajak later apologized.

2. Pat Sajak Once Switched Roles (But Not Outfits) With Vanna White

Pat Sajak has never been seen onscreen in one of Vanna White’s signature evening gowns, but he has actually switched places with her. In 1989, Vanna hosted the show while Pat turned the letters, a last-minute decision made because of his growing case of laryngitis. He tells the story to Good Morning America here.

3. Pat Sajak Was Once a Contestant on Wheel of Fortune—Which Was Hosted By Alex Trebek

Wheel of Fortune

Jeopardy!

If you haven’t seen them yet, hie thee posthaste to view these legendary April 1, 1997 episodes of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!. Pat Sajak and Vanna White appear as celebrities playing for charity in an April Fool’s Wheel of Fortune (which is hosted by Trebek), and Sajak hosts an episode of Jeopardy! featuring a trio of adorably confused contestants. (Yes, this means that Alex Trebek has never, ever played Jeopardy! on camera. Start working on that change.org petition now, America.)

Trebek had previously hosted Wheel of Fortune for a one-week stint as a replacement for Chuck Woolery in 1980 and as a one-episode fill-in for Pat Sajak in 1985. However, these April Fool's episodes were the only time since the syndicated revival of Jeopardy! in 1984 that anyone other than Alex Trebek has hosted the show. (Although, the show pulled a similar April Fool’s gag in 2010 with Will Ferrell in his SNL “Celebrity Jeopardy!” get-up “hosting” the show using pre-taped, spliced-in footage.)

Notable moments from these April Fool’s episodes include the incredible meta-ness of Pat Sajak solving a puzzle that reads “PAT, I’D LIKE TO SOLVE THE PUZZLE,” and the introduction of “Before and After” to Jeopardy!, which Pat says is “something we took from another show, you’ll figure it out.” 

The woman clapping and turning letters in the April Fool’s Wheel of Fortune is Pat Sajak’s little-seen wife Lesly Sajak, making Pat Sajak the only Wheel of Fortune contestant to have ever purchased a vowel from his own spouse.

4. Pat Sajak Was Once Replaced By A Former NFL Player

Part of the convoluted history of Wheel of Fortune includes the fact that from 1983 to 1991 there were actually two versions of the series—a daytime show on NBC and a nighttime show on syndication. From 1983 to 1989, Pat Sajak hosted both versions, but Sajak retired from the daytime show to host The Pat Sajak Show, a late night talk show conceived as CBS’s response to Johnny Carson.

During the widely publicized search for Sajak’s replacement, Merv Griffin saw former San Diego Chargers placekicker Rolf Benirschke discussing “healthy habits” in an interview on an L.A. morning show and decided that he liked the young man so that he invited him in for an audition, despite his lack of broadcasting experience.

Benirschke was not a very good host—he frequently forgot the rules to the game and it got to the point where contestants would have to correct him. He was fired after six months and NBC dropped the daytime Wheel of Fortune in 1991.

Lest we think unkindly of Merv Griffin’s taste, the host of Wheel of Fortune had traditionally gone to people with little game show experience. Griffin originally cast Chuck Woolery to host Wheel of Fortune after seeing him perform as a country singer on The Tonight Show in 1975.

Sajak was also an unlikely choice—he was the weatherman for KNBC-LA when Griffin tapped him as Woolery’s replacement. Fred Silverman, the president of NBC at the time, was so opposed to putting Sajak in Woolery’s seat that the standoff between Griffin and Silverman put a halt to all tapings of Wheel of Fortune until Griffin finally won and Silverman was forced out of his position.

5. Rush Limbaugh Had A Huge Meltdown on Pat Sajak’s Talk Show

In case you were wondering, the effort to make Pat Sajak the new Johnny Carson didn’t go that well—The Pat Sajak Show was canceled after one season. (I invite aspiring science-fiction writers out there to imagine the ramifications of a timeline where Pat Sajak has Jay Leno’s career, however.)

The strangest and most notable thing about the waning days of The Pat Sajak Show was CBS cycling through guest hosts as stealth auditions for his replacement. This culminated in the March 30, 1990 incident where Rush Limbaugh hosted the show in Sajak’s stead.

The situation deteriorated almost instantly, with Limbaugh apparently being in front of a non-specifically-prescreened-for-Limbaugh audience for the first time in his career, and a few of his multitudinous haters seized the opportunity to fill up slots in the audience. Whatever the actual initial plan for this episode was, it quickly turned into a raucous back-and-forth shouting match between Limbaugh and an army of hecklers, including a whole group who somehow got through pre-screening wearing ACT UP! T-shirts.

Limbaugh later accused the studio of intentionally letting an audience of detractors through in order to boost ratings which, if it is true, is one of the most awesome things to ever happen on TV.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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