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11 Strange Soap Opera Cameos

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Soap operas have always embraced incredulity. At various points in its history, the genre has welcomed stars that were not believed by the public to ever want or need to show their faces on daytime television, whether it was perceived to be beneath them, or because they weren't universally popular enough for a ratings-grabbing gambit. But as these 11 cameos prove, you can never count on soaps to be predictable.

1. YOGI BERRA // GENERAL HOSPITAL (AUGUST 16, 1963)

As his All-Star playing days were winding down, Berra was already well known for his affable public persona and his tendency to utter malapropisms. In 1963, the Yankee- and Yogi-supporting General Hospital producers approached the catcher about making a cameo appearance as a brain surgeon. Despite the paltry $150 paycheck, Berra agreed, because he liked the idea of his family seeing him act.

The producers helped convince him to take the trip to Los Angeles by insisting it was easy and that he wouldn't have to say anything. Once Yogi arrived, though, he was given some lines to read. Berra had no trouble with them and got a speaking part as Dr. Lawrence P. Berra. Recounting the experience in his book, When You Come To The Fork In The Road, Take It!, Berra was typically self-effacing: "And I once was a brain surgeon—no kidding—in a General Hospital episode, in the early '60s. Those were the days before the soaps got sexy."

2. ELIZABETH TAYLOR // GENERAL HOSPITAL (NOVEMBER 10-19, 1981)

General Hospital was earning more than $50 million a year in profits in 1981 and was watched by over 14 million people every day. The marriage of popular characters Luke and Laura on November 16, 1981 would net a viewership of 30 million people—the highest rated soap opera episode ever. Even though the show didn't need her services, producers gladly accepted "superfan" Elizabeth Taylor's request to appear on the show, and involved her in a big plot.

Taylor played Helena Cassadine, super-villain Mikkos Cassadine's widow. Months earlier, Luke, Laura, and Robert Scorpio stopped Mikkos' plot to freeze the world by way of a weather machine. Helena arrived in Port Charles with, initially, good intentions, donating millions to make up for her late husband's evil ways. Eventually, though, she cursed Luke and Laura on their wedding day.

Taylor's stint as Helena ended three days later, but it wouldn't be the end of Cassadine shenanigans. The family would later kidnap Laura and force her to marry Helena's son Stavros. Helena would reappear in front of the camera in 1996, played by Dimitra Arliss, and periodically since 1997 by Constance Towers. Taylor's work took two filming days, and she was paid $2000, which she donated to a Virginia hospital. Tony Geary, the actor who played Luke, claimed to Katie Couric that he and Taylor carried on a two-year affair after her taping.

3. WAYNE GRETZKY // THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS (NOVEMBER 12, 1981)

Starting his third year in the NHL, then 20-year-old Gretzky was already a hockey legend, having won the league's MVP award his first two seasons. After admitting to a love of soap operas—Gretzky needed something to do between morning practice and his night games—"The Great One" was cast as a mafia goon, appearing on the November 12, 1981 episode of The Young and the Restless (on the same day as one of Elizabeth Taylor's General Hospital episodes!). The casting was purposely as odd as Yogi Berra's, because Wayne was not and never would be known as one of the rougher NHL players. He only had to remember the following six words: "I'm Wayne from the Edmonton operation."

4. THE B-52s // GUIDING LIGHT (1982)

Throughout an entire 1982 episode of Guiding Light, The B-52s (then the B-52's) hung out in Springfield, where the band performed two songs—"Throw That Beat In The Garbage Can" and "Private Idaho"—at the fictitious dance club Wired For Sound and chatted intermittently (and awkwardly) with the residents. Frontman Fred Schneider remarked in an interview that "Garbage Can" was an odd request by the producers because it was never released as a single. Schneider also claimed that he was the "worst actor," even though he was playing himself.

5. MORRISSEY // SOUTH (MARCH 21, 1988)

As a young man, the former lead singer and lyricist for The Smiths wrote a letter to Granada TV, seeking employment as a writer on the popular British soap opera Coronation Street. He never landed that gig, but as he achieved fame with the band, Steven Morrissey was offered roles on Emmerdale and EastEnders. He turned those offers down, writing in his recent autobiography that "the most fascinating aspect of both offers is that somebody somewhere thought it a good idea."

It would only be one year after The Smiths' breakup that Morrissey chose to make a soap opera cameo, possibly to help promote his debut solo album Viva Hate, and thanks to South writer and Morrissey friend Shaun Duggan. Years later, Morrissey would turn down an apparently impromptu offer to appear on Friends, singing along with Phoebe. "Within seconds of the proposal, I wind down the fire-escape like a serpent, and it's goodbye to Hollywood yet again," he wrote of that experience.

6. JESSE VENTURA // THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS (JULY 10, 2000)

A fan of The Young and the Restless since his wrestling days, Jesse Ventura made an appearance on his favorite soap opera while he was the governor of Minnesota. Knowledgeable fan that he was, Ventura insisted that if he was playing himself as the governor, he would only meet with the powerful character Victor Newman—so the writers were forced to scrap their original plan, which had Ventura sharing a scene with the lawyer character Cricket. In the episode, Gov. Ventura asked international businessman Newman to become his running mate in a bid for the U.S. presidency. Things didn't work out between the two, because they couldn't decide on who would take the vice president position.

7. MEREDITH VIEIRA // GENERAL HOSPITAL (MARCH 2003 AND DECEMBER 14, 2012)

In March 2003, while she was firmly entrenched as the host of The View and starting her 11-year stint on the syndicated Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Meredith Vieira appeared on General Hospital as Bree Flanders, the madam of an upscale prostitution ring, who had her eye on Luke's girlfriend at the time. Soap Opera Digest editor Carolyn Hinsey gave Vieira a glowing review, writing that "She could actually act. And she was a very convincing hooker, which I know she would take as a compliment." Vieira was good enough to reprise her role as Bree in late 2012, but this time as a senior vice president of marketing at a cosmetics company.

8. SMOKEY ROBINSON // DAYS OF OUR LIVES (NOVEMBER 14-15, 2006)

Music legend Smokey Robinson appearing on a soap opera wasn't unusual in and of itself; in 2004, he had a cameo on The Young and the Restless and gave a character advice on the music business. The nature of the storyline on his two-episode appearance on Days of Our Lives, though, was a bit stranger.

While flying to Canada to find an antidote for the poisoned Steve and Kayla, Marlena and John's plane crashed. Marlena Black got lost in the snowy wilderness after parachuting out, and was startled when a mysterious man approached her carrying an axe. That man turned out to be Smokey Robinson, in the middle of his vacation. Robinson brought Marlena to his secluded cabin and called the proper authorities. To ensure his status as the World's Greatest Host, Robinson serenaded the reunited Marlena and John the next day with his 1991 song "I Love Your Face."

9. JERRY SPRINGER // DAYS OF OUR LIVES (JULY 27, 2007)

Since serving as the mayor of Cincinnati, Jerry Springer has put together a diverse television portfolio over the years, credited as a political pundit, newscaster, movie star, reality show ballroom dancer, and most notably as the titular host of his own controversial daytime talk show. His strangest appearance, though, was his one-episode appearance on Days of Our Lives as Pete, a Las Vegas high roller. Nick Fallon, down on his luck after losing most of his money, receives tutelage from Pete, who seems to win every hand of Blackjack. Spoiler: Pete helps Nick win $50,000 and impress Chelsea Brady, the girl of Nick's dreams.

10. SNOOP DOGG/SNOOP LION // ONE LIFE TO LIVE (2008, 2010, 2013)

Calvin Broadus has made various trips to the town of Llanview over the past few years as himself, initially as Snoop Dogg but later as Snoop Lion. A fan of One Life to Live since he was "a baby," Snoop particularly enjoys character Bo Buchanan's antics. In his 2010 appearance, Snoop talked Bo and Nora Buchanan into letting their son go to his concert, surprising mother and son in a meta moment with his knowledge of their lives. That time, Broadus performed the theme song to the episode, and when he returned in 2013 to promote a new film, he brought a new theme along with him called "Brand New Start" featuring IZA Lach. By then, One Life to Live had been canceled by ABC and resurrected on the internet.

11. JAMES FRANCO // GENERAL HOSPITAL (NOVEMBER 19, 2009 - JANUARY 2012)

James Franco intermittently portrayed a conceptual artist/sociopath/serial killer named Franco from 2009 to 2012, after a friend and artist collaborator suggested that he take a soap opera role and play an artist. The Franco character was obsessed with the killer Jason Morgan, believing that his work in organized crime was art. Morgan upset "Franco" by disagreeing, and kidnapped Morgan's girlfriend and best friend. Jason saved them but "Franco" got away.

The next year, Franco and "Franco" re-appeared running an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles titled "Francophrenia: Dissolving the Boundary Between Illusion and Reality," itself an actual exhibit at MOCA at the time. The blurring of fiction and non-fiction continued with the casting of James Franco's actual mother as "Franco"'s mom. After being presumed dead following his 2012 cameos, the character of "Franco" returned to General Hospital, this time portrayed by Roger Howarth.

The whole experience was described by The Los Angeles Times as "the ultimate extension of Andy Warhol guest starring in The Love Boat."

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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