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Stacy Conradt

Merv Griffin

Original image
Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.

Though many know him from his talk shows and game shows, Merv Griffin was a man of many talents. From novelty song hitmaker to real estate mogul and thoroughbred horse breeder, he did pretty much everything he felt like doing—and he did it all well. Given everything else he had a hand in during his life, it’s not too surprising that he even wrote his own epitaph. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Long before Jeopardy! and even The Merv Griffin Show, Mervyn Griffin, Jr. was just a kid singing in his church choir in San Mateo, California. He was so good that he landed a job as a big band singer by the time he was 19. He was the vocalist for Freddy Martin and his Orchestra when they made this song a top 10 hit in 1949:

Griffin made enough money to fund his own record label and album, Songs by Merv Griffin; he was touring when Doris Day “discovered” him at a nightclub. She arranged for a screen test, and before he knew it, Merv found himself on the silver screen. He wasn’t crazy about it, though, so he bought out his contract and switched to TV, where he hosted game shows called Play Your Hunch and Keep Talking. He also guest-hosted on The Tonight Show in 1962 during the transition between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. This led to his very own daytime talk show, which was a bit of a dud and was cancelled the next year.

Then Jeopardy! came along. Merv was mulling over a new game show while on an airplane with his wife, Julann. She asked if it was one based on knowledge and trivia. When Merv responded that the networks weren’t too keen on those shows after the Quiz Show scandal, Julann suggested that the host just give the contestants the answer. Merv didn’t get it. “OK, the answer is 5280,” Julann said. Merv considered, then realized that the question was, “How many feet are in a mile?” They played this game the whole way home, and by the time their flight landed in New York City, Jeopardy! was born. 

And if creating the world’s most famous game show wasn’t enough of a life achievement for Merv, he also composed the world’s most famous “thinking” music—the Jeopardy! song, originally called “A Time for Tony,” was written as a lullaby for his son. He once estimated that the little ditty had earned him more than $70 million over his lifetime. Here's an hour of it, just in case you really need to ponder something.

Of course, in the middle of all of this, Griffin launched a syndicated talk show called The Merv Griffin Show (exponentially more successful than the 1963 go-around) that was famous for its eclectic and sometimes controversial mix of guests. It was on the air for 21 years and won 11 Emmy Awards. It also became the plot of a pretty memorable Seinfeld episode. Here's Merv interviewing Salvador Dali in 1965.

After his show ended in 1986, Merv proclaimed himself bored and bought the Beverly Hilton Hotel from Barron Hilton. He also purchased an Atlantic City hotel from Donald Trump, and owned a resort in Palm Springs, a boutique hotel in Ireland, and an entire island in the Bahamas.

Oh, and he was also a big fan of horseracing. His colt, Stevie Wonderboy, won the $1.5 million Breeder’s Cup Juvenile in 2005. It may have been one of his proudest moments—“There’s a lot of excitement winning Emmy Awards and all of that stuff,” Griffin said after the win. "Then there’s the fighting with Donald Trump, which is fun. But this is extraordinary.”

Sadly, the multitalented entrepreneur died from a recurrence of prostate cancer two years after the Breeder’s Cup win, before he could realize his dream of having one of his horses win the Kentucky Derby. But don’t cry for Merv Griffin—he realized more dreams than most people can even imagine.

If you’re a fan of Merv’s incredibly varied work (including Wheel of Fortune), you can stop and tell him thanks the next time you’re in L.A. He’s at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, and as you can see, he had a sense of humor about his livelihood. He penned a couple of epitaphs in his 1980 autobiography, including “Stay tuned,” but ultimately, his family went with Griffin’s “I will not be right back after this message.”

See all entries in our Grave Sighting series here.

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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]