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11 Memories From the Arabic Version of The Simpsons

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Neatorama

MBC, the first independent Arabic satellite TV station, wanted to make a splash, so they presented a "culturally modified" and Arabic-dubbed version of The Simpsons in 2005. It premiered to criticism and some negative reviews, but it still makes for a fascinating cultural artifact.

1. THE NEW VERSION OF THE SHOW WAS TITLED AL SHAMSHOON, AND THE CHARACTERS' NAMES WERE CHANGED.

Homer Simpson became Omar Shamshoon. Marge was transformed into Mona. Lisa was renamed Bessa. Bart went by Badr. Nuclear power plant boss Mr. Burns was Mahrooey Bey, while his sidekick Smithers now answered to Salmawy. Krusty the Clown was now Maarmish, a translation from "Crunchy." They all called Rabeea (Arabic for "spring") and not Springfield home, and it was designed to resemble an American town with a major Arab population.

2. OMAR SHAMSHOON DID NOT DRINK BEER.

To avoid potentially offending the audience, none of the characters drank alcohol. This meant that all scenes at Moe's Tavern were cut and one of Omar's favorite things was taken away from him. Instead of a frosty Duff, Omar would enjoy a soft drink if he was drinking anything at home. None of the characters consumed pork either — Omar ate Egyptian beef sausages instead of non-Halal hot dogs. Doughnuts were replaced by Arab "kahk" cookies, which are sometimes made with holes in the middle.

3. NED FLANDERS WAS NO LONGER A CHRISTIAN.

The Flanders on Al Shamshoon never professed to an affiliation with any religion, although he did remain annoying. MBC decided against "Arabizing" the early seasons and began with the popular season four, but they did not air "Homer the Heretic," an episode where Homer stops attending church, believes he meets God, and forms his own religion. An unidentified ex-Disney employee in Lebanon told a CBC reporter that if a TV station can do so, "they'll excise references to Judaism from shows meant for the pan-Arab market," which could explain the disappearance of Krusty's father, Rabbi Krustofski.

4. SOME THINGS REMAINED UNCHANGED.

It should be noted that frustration is universally recognized: Omar did say "d'oh!" and Badr said things are "rewesh" (cool). Surprisingly, classic American pop culture references were left in, like allusions to The Twilight Zone and 1990s baseball.

5. A SIMPSONS EXECUTIVE PRODUCER DID NOT APPROVE OF HOMER'S CHANGES.

Al Jean, the co-showrunner of The Simpsons for the third and fourth seasons and the lone showrunner since 2001, thought that Homer's character was being compromised, telling ABC News, "If Homer doesn't drink and eat bacon and generally act like a pig, which I guess is also against Islam, then it's not Homer."

6. THERE WERE INTERNAL CREATIVE DEBATES BETWEEN THE SHOW'S WRITER AND THE NETWORK.

Amr Hosny understood what Jean was saying. Hosny, a respected adaptive screenwriter and Al Shamshoon's writer, watched the original Simpsons and determined that it was a "very American piece of pop culture." He wanted to make the setting "Little Arab Town," which he felt would explain away why a full Arab community existed in a small United States town, but was overruled by MBC. Hosny also said, “This guy Homer drinks beer all the time, but this is a sin to the Arabs. So I told them that he will drink she’er — which is a [non-alcoholic] malt drink, and close to beer in sound, so good for dubbing. But they refused this. They said we must make it ‘juice.’” Hosny admitted that he "naturally underemphasized" Smithers' attraction to Mr. Burns.

7. MBC WAS VERY OPTIMISTIC ABOUT AL SHAMSHOON'S SUCCESS.

Michel Costandi, business-development director of MBC TV Network, said before Al Shamshoon's premiere, "I think The Simpsons will open new horizons for us to the future. We are opening up a new genre of programming in the Middle East." Sherine El-Hakim, head of Arabic content at VSI Ltd, a London-based company that dubs and subtitles TV shows for broadcasters and corporations, was bullish on the entire concept of "Arabization" through television, telling the Wall Street Journal that it was going to boom in the next few years, adding, "We're such an impressionable people and we aspire so much to be like the West, that we take on anything that we believe is a symbol or a manifestation of Western culture."

TV shows from America had some mixed results in the Middle East in 2005 — while Who Will Win a Million was a huge hit, an Arabic version of Big Brother was canceled after one week because of complaints over men and women living together.

8. MBC HIRED TOP EGYPTIAN ACTORS TO PROVIDE THE VOICES.

To hedge their bets, the network hired popular actors to provide the voices on Al Shamshoon. Mohamed Heneidy was described in The Wall Street Journal as the "Robert DeNiro of the Middle East," and thus it was Heneidy who provided the voice of the patriarch Omar.

9. IT PREMIERED ON THE FIRST NIGHT OF RAMADAN 2005.

The premiere episode of Al Shamshoon aired in October 4, 2005, the first night of the holy month of Ramadan, which is the biggest TV viewing night of the year. On Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown, and after the fast is broken with an evening meal, millions settle in for a night of watching TV. Al Shamshoon was given the 7pm time slot.

10. AL SHAMSHOON WAS CANCELED AFTER 34 EPISODES.

The network order was for 52, but Al Shamshoon would be taken off the air after 34 episodes from MBC 1, 34 days after it premiered. The man responsible for green-lighting the show was Badih Fattouh, the head of acquisitions and drama commissioner for MBC 1. In a postmortem, Fattouh said in 2007, “The show was not a big success. Otherwise, of course, we would have continued to do another season. I would say it was fairly received, but average. This made us reconsider.”

A popular opinion on why the show failed to attract an audience was that it never fully translated the humor, and the majority of the Arabic speaking audience still considered cartoons to be for children.

11. THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF THE SIMPSONS IS STILL WATCHED IN ARABIC SPEAKING COUNTRIES.

Before MBC's experiment, un-altered episodes of The Simpsons were broadcast in English with Arabic subtitles on networks like Showtime Arabia and Dubai's One TV. People could also watch the show via DVDs, the Internet, and satellite TV. Some theorize that the most passionate of Al Shamshoon viewers were simply Simpsons fans who wanted to see how badly MBC would botch the job.

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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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May 23, 2017
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